STERLING – Back and forth they went Tuesday night, the two rivals from across the Rock River, knocking down shot after shot and each answering the other's response.
But after Rock Falls' last-second chance to win in regulation evaporated, Sterling took control from the free-throw line in overtime. The Golden Warriors went on to beat the Rockets 50-43 in a Class 3A Sterling Regional semifinal at Musgrove Fieldhouse. They advance to face Rochelle in Thursday's regional title game.
"We felt like once they missed that last chance [in regulation], we had to step up and get a lead and put the pressure on them in overtime," Sterling junior Kiarra Harris said. "Once we were ahead, we got to the free-throw line and knocked them down, and that basically won the game."
"I feel like we showed how much heart we have in everything we did tonight," Rock Falls senior Morgan Mammosser said. "It came down to a last shot for us that we couldn't convert, and we let the game slip away in overtime."
This game had everything any basketball fan could want: 16 second-half lead changes, five ties and some solid shot-making skills displayed by a plethora of players on both teams.
Harris' basket to open the second half put the Warriors (19-12) up 25-20, but that was the biggest lead either team had until the final margin. Jordan Giddings answered by splitting a pair of free throws, then she converted a three-point play to make it 25-24 with 5:58 left in the third period.
One team or the other had a one-point lead the rest of the way, until Dallas Clevenger split a pair of free throws with 1:32 left in regulation to tie the score at 41.
"It was a fun game to be a part of," Sterling junior Kaitlyn Bauer said. "We knew they were going to come out ready to play and bring all they had, and we knew we had to do it, too. We just had to run our stuff, trust it, and just finish better when we got the open shots."
Both teams had possessions in the final minute of regulation. Sterling turned the ball over with 18.3 seconds left, giving Rock Falls (12-16) one final chance to complete the comeback.
"It was pretty scary there at the end," Harris said, "because they took us out of everything we wanted to do, and they had all the momentum. It was stressful, but we just had to push through it."
The Rockets took timeout with 12.8 seconds remaining, and set up a play – then ran it almost perfectly. Mammosser took the inbounds pass, handed the ball off, then proceeded to the weak side, where Clevenger lobbed an alley-oop pass to her. But Harris knocked the ball away, and the clock ran out before Sterling could get a shot off.
"We ran that exactly the way we wanted, but Kiarra just used her athleticism to get a hand on it," Rock Falls coach Craig Mammosser said. "If the pass would've been to the rim instead of behind it to Morgan, I think we've got a chance to finish it right there. But we did what we wanted to do tonight, and it just came down to a couple of little things they did better than us."
Those things: layups and free throws. While the Rockets missed a least eight or 10 bunnies and hit just five of their 12 free throws, the Warriors converted their chances in the paint and went 14-for-17 from the line.
Both teams stressed the adage that the game comes down to layups and free throws, and the Warriors just did a better job with theirs.
"I'm so excited that I went 8-for-8 on free throws," Bauer gushed, "but I'm even happier with the way we all stepped to the line and made them in big situations in overtime."
Gabby Sandoval banked in a jumper and Giddings scored on a post-to-post feed from Bailey Schrader to open overtime, but that was the last tie. While the shots that Rock Falls had been making throughout the second half to keep the see-saw affair in order started to rattle out, Bauer, Sandoval, Stephanie Kester and Harris combined to make seven of nine free throws over the final 2:20 to seal the victory.
"To work so hard to put ourselves in position to win, then to see our shots not falling in overtime, it's disappointing," Clevenger said. "But it was a great rivalry game, neither team wanted to be the one who had to lose, and unfortunately it had to be us."
"Sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes you're unlucky," Morgan Mammosser added, "and we just couldn't hit the shots we needed to when we needed to hit them. We never gave up, but it is what it is in the end."
Clevenger led the Rockets with 13 points, seven coming in the fourth quarter. Giddings scored 10 points, Mammosser added nine points, six steals and four rebounds, and Schrader chipped in six points and eight boards. Rock Falls committed 10 fewer turnovers than Sterling (13-23), but were outscored by nine at the free-throw line (14-5) and 12 from 3-point range (12-0).
Bauer had 12 of her game-high 14 points after halftime and also grabbed six rebounds for Sterling, while Harris finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. Kester hit three 3s and had 11 points, and Sandoval had seven points and four boards; Harris, Kester and Sandoval had two assists each.
"We would go down and run our stuff on offense and score, then they would go down and run their stuff and score," Sterling coach Julie Schroeder said. "After the way overtime started, with that scrum [on the opening tip] and they got the ball, I felt like things might not go our way … but we got that first stop and Gabby came down and popped that jumper, and that seemed to relax us."
Class 3A Sterling Regional semifinal
Sterling 50, Rock Falls 43, OT
Star of the game: Kaitlyn Bauer, Sterling scored 12 of game-high 14 points after halftime, 6 rebounds, 8-for-8 FTs, 2 steals
Key performers: Kiarra Harris, Sterling, 13 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks; Stephanie Kester, Sterling, 11 points, 3 3-pointers, 2 assists; Dallas Clevenger, RF, scored 9 of team-high 13 points after halftime; Morgan Mammosser, RF, 9 points, 6 steals, 4 rebounds
Up next: Class 3A Sterling Regional championship, Sterling vs. Rochelle, 7:30 p.m. Thursday