GENOA - Down the homestretch of Sterling's 60-54 sectional semifinal victory over Lutheran, Stephanie Kester passed up open look after open look.
The senior sharpshooter was 8-for-10 for her team-high 24 points at that point and had tied the program's record for trifectas in a game. It had to have been difficult to back off the hammer, right?
"It wasn't too hard," Kester said. "I knew what we were supposed to do: hold onto the ball and get good possessions and take time."
"It's not hard when you're a smart basketball player," Sterling coach Julie Schroeder said. "We knew if we held onto the ball, they couldn't score. We've grown up a lot in the last 3 weeks."
Kester was 5-for-5 in the first half, helping Sterling (21-12) to a 28-18 lead at the break of the Class 3A Genoa-Kingston sectional semi. But Lutheran (22-7) wasn't going to shoot 23 percent (7-for-32 in the first half, including 1-for-17 in the first period) forever.
The Crusaders used a 13-0 surge in less than 3 minutes to turn a 41-27 Sterling lead into a one-point game in the closing minute of the third. But 5-foot-11 Sterling forward Kiarra Harris spun into the lane and found Kester just left of the circle. Unmarked, she buried her sixth 3-ball.
That triggered a 7-0 Sterling burst, as Kaitlyn Bauer hit two free throws, then scored off a slick block-to-block pass from Harris to make it 48-40 with 6:12 to play.
"We did some really strange things during that 13-0 run, and I just kept envisioning the last game, that we did the same thing: built a big lead and then let them back in," said Schroeder, referring to a Dec. matchup in the Dixon tournament in which the Warriors squandered a nine-point lead after the third. "That's really gutsy on our kids' part, to come back from a run like that, and I don't think they could've done that 2 months ago."
The Crusaders committed just two turnovers in the game, the second downright costly as they trailed 54-48 with about 3 minutes to play. Rachel Konieczki, who scored 18 of her game-high 26 in the second half, lost her dribble to Kester, who immediately looked down the floor.
Kester moved it ahead to Gabby Sandoval, who relayed it to Bauer for two of her 12 points. Two passes. Two dribbles. Five seconds. One dagger.
"I said, 'Hey, if we can run, by all means, let's do it. Let's just make sure we finish,'" Schroeder said. "But if they're back and we can run our offense and get good shots, let's do that.
"Really coachable tonight. They listened to everything we talked about."
Sophomore point guard Sandoval blanketed Konieczki and helped hold her to 10-for-26 shooting, six of those points coming on her only two 3s in the closing minutes. On the other end, Sandoval hit four straight free throws to put the victory on ice.
"Coach just told me to take a deep breath, soft touch, and they'll go in," Sandoval said.
Sandoval dished out five assists. Harris only scored three points, but handed out three assists to go with her 18 rebounds and two blocks.
"Tonight really epitomized the concept of playing together," Schroeder said. "Kiarra only had three points, but she was huge in every other aspect of the game."
Sterling enjoyed a 45-24 rebounding advantage. The Warriors seized an 11-0 lead 3 minutes into the first, the run including two 3s and a dime by Kester. After Bauer grabbed a rebound, she tore down the floor and was rewarded as Kester hit her at the free-throw line for a lay-up to go up 5-0.
"That's the chemistry of the two blondes," said Pearson, who scored 10 points for Sterling but, like Bauer, had to deal with foul trouble.
Pearson picked up her fourth foul late in the third. Bauer was whistled for two in the first.
"It's not fun," Bauer said. "My leg was shaking. I just really wanted to get in there and attack."
That was the mode Sterling was in all night. That is, until the Warriors methodically salted away the victory over the final 5 minutes.
The key, in Sandoval's eyes, was being ready to blitz the Crusaders right out of the gates.
"We've been the dark horse, like the paper says," Sandoval said with a grin. "My dad and I had to look it up. It's something coming up behind you, and you don't expect it."
Star of the game: Stephanie Kester, Sterling, 24 points on 8-for-10 shooting, school record-tying six 3s, 5 rebounds
Key performers: Rachel Konieczki, Lutheran, 26 points, 4 steals, 2 rebounds, 2 assists; Kaitlyn Bauer, Sterling, 12 points, 8 rebounds; Gabby Sandoval, Sterling, 8 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds; Kiarra Harris, Sterling, 3 points, 18 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks; McKenna Pearson, Sterling, 10 points, 4 rebounds
Up next: 3A Genoa-Kingston Sectional championship, Sterling vs. winner of Burlington Central-Woodstock Marian, 7:30 p.m. Thursday