STERLING – Things were uneasy in the Rochelle locker room at halftime of the Class 3A Sterling Regional final, even with an eight-point lead. Next door, the Sterling Golden Warriors were just plain mad.
After struggling on the offensive end throughout the first half Thursday, the Golden Warriors used big runs in both the third and fourth quarters to beat the Hubs 47-44 and claim their second straight regional championship.
“I never felt comfortable, never thought we were in complete control,” Rochelle coach Kay Dobbs said. “Even up 8 at halftime, we still knew we were in for a battle, because Sterling’s too good a team to just go away.”
While Dobbs cautioned her players at the break, Sterling coach Julie Schroeder was asking her team if they really wanted to walk off the court after the game wishing they had played harder or wanted to win more.
Her Warriors responded.
Kiarra Harris was nearly unstoppable in the second half, scoring 20 of her game-high 25 points after the break, and senior McKenna Pearson led Sterling’s aggressive charge with strong drives to the basket and smart decision-making.
“Things kind of snapped on us at halftime that this could be our last game,” Pearson said, “and we knew we had to step it up. So we went all-out, got things going, and just kept at it.”
Rochelle (21-6) led 19-8 after Michelle Dobbs’ 3-pointer with 3:26 left before halftime. But Gabby Sandoval scored on a putback, then found Harris inside off an inbounds pass to get within 21-13 at the break.
After Dobbs scored on Rochelle’s first possession of the third quarter, Sterling scored 11 of the next 15 points to cut the deficit to 27-24 with 2:51 left in the period. Harris scored nine of those, and Pearson had the others on a take down the lane.
But momentum seemed to shift at the end of the third. Christina Williams hit a half-court shot at the buzzer to push Rochelle’s lead back to six, 35-29, with 8 minutes to play.
“That was a big shot,” Schroeder said, “but I was very happy to see how well we reacted to it.”
The reaction: The Warriors (20-12) scored the first nine points of the fourth quarter, and Pearson’s 3 on Harris’ kick-out pass put Sterling up 36-35 with 5:25 to play – its first lead since 2-0.
After a Rochelle timeout, Pearson found Kaitlyn Bauer for a layup on a nice drive-and-dish play, but the Hubs answered with a 3 from Marin Meiners and Dobbs’ putback for a 40-38 lead with 2:36 left.
Harris scored on another inbounds pass, then hit both ends of a one-and-one to put Sterling ahead 43-40, but Williams and Dobbs both hit jumpers to give the Hubs a 44-43 margin.
But on the other end, Harris won the battle for an offensive rebound and scored while being fouled. She missed the free throw, but when Rochelle’s Talina Nava tried to save the rebound from going out of bounds, she threw it right back to Harris, who was fouled again. She hit both free throws, and Sterling led 47-44 with 9.1 seconds left.
“They came up huge on the little things,” Michelle Dobbs said, “and we just couldn’t get a couple of bounces to go our way at the end.”
“Kiarra was the key for us tonight,” Pearson added, “and when she’s on fire, the rest of us just try to follow her lead.”
The Hubs dribbled to midcourt and called their final timeout with 4 seconds to go. After Harris kicked three straight inbounds passes, Williams caught Dobbs’ pass and was immediately fouled – but it as just Sterling’s third foul of the half. The next inbounds pass went to Meiners, and she looked like she started to jump for a 3 and was fouled. But the officials deemed it was on the floor, meaning Rochelle needed one more inbounds pass and a quick shot with 9-tenths of a second remaining.
This time, Williams found Dobbs in the right corner, and her 3-point attempt looked good before rattling out, settling off pandemonium at Musgrove Fieldhouse.
“We really wanted revenge, because we had already lost to them twice,” Harris said. “We knew it was going to be a close game, so we finally picked up the intensity and started playing our game. We started running, tightened up the defense, and things started going our way.”
Harris finished off a double-double with 14 rebounds, and also had three assists, three steals and three blocks. Pearson scored all eight of her points in the second half, and added five rebounds and three assists. Bauer had five points, three boards and two steals, and Sandoval chipped in four points, four rebounds and three assists.
“They were so aggressive with the ball in the second half, and I don’t think we were quite ready for it,” Michelle Dobbs said. “They got out on so many fast breaks, and not just on turnovers, and our defense wasn’t good enough after being really good in the first half.”
Dobbs closed her career with 21 points, six rebounds and three blocks.
It was also the final game for Michelle’s mom, Kay, who is stepping down from her coaching duties. After claiming her 300th coaching win earlier this year – coincidentally, against Sterling on Jan. 12 – Dobbs saw the same Warriors end her team’s “super year.”
“Obviously we would’ve loved a regional championship,” she said, “but this isn’t going to diminish what we accomplished this season, or erase all the memories we’ll have.”
Class 3A Sterling Regional final
Sterling 47, Rochelle 44
Star of the game: Kiarra Harris, Sterling, 25 points, 14 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks
Key performers: McKenna Pearson, Sterling, 8 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists; Michelle Dobbs, Rochelle, 21 points, 6 rebounds, 3 blocks; Christina Williams, Rochelle, 9 points, 5 steals, 2 assists; Abby Gould, Rochelle, 5 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks
Up next: Class 3A Genoa-Kingston Sectional semifinal, Sterling vs. Lutheran/Freeport winner, 7:30 p.m. Monday