GENOA – As well as the Sterling girls basketball team started off Monday's semifinal game at the Class 3A Genoa-Kingston Sectional, the Burlington Central Rockets did the same thing in Thursday night's championship game.
The Rockets turned the tables on the Golden Warriors, jumping out to a double-digit lead less than 7 minutes into the game and cruising to a 49-26 victory in Genoa.
"We came out big, knew what we had to do, and kept going after we got the early lead," Burlington Central freshman guard Kayla Ross said. "We played as a team, got some open shots and knocked them down. Everyone did their part, and that's how you have to play to win games in the postseason."
Shelby Holt rained in three 3-pointers in the game's first 4 minutes, and Rebecca Gerke's three-point play with 1:12 left in the first quarter put the Rockets ahead 17-6.
Junior Raquel Romano nailed a 3 and scored a fast-break layup to close the quarter, but the eight-point margin was as close as the Warriors (21-13) would get the rest of the way. Kiarra Harris hit a free throw before finding an open Alexis Strong for a runout layup, then Gabby Sandoval hit a free throws to get to within 23-15 with 3:07 left before halftime.
But Burlington Central (27-4) scored the final nine points of the first half, the last two coming on Ross's driving layup with 3.2 seconds left after the Rockets had bled the last 1:15 off the clock. Central then outscored Sterling 13-2 in the third quarter to put the game away.
"I don't really know what happened," Sterling senior guard McKenna Pearson said. "We were prepared for what they were going to do, we just couldn't get things to go our way."
The Rockets' defense was the main culprit. Sterling attempted 25 shots in the game, and turned the ball over 26 times, 23 of them coming in the first three quarters. Burlington Central nabbed 18 steals, with Ross and Camille Dela Cruz swiping six each.
"Their defense was a lot better than we could work on during practice," Sterling senior forward Alexis Strong said. "We knew what to expect, but they were quick and aggressive and didn't let us do what we wanted to do."
On the other end of the floor, the Rockets were just as efficient. They shot 50 percent for the game (21-for-42), outscored Sterling 11-1 on second-chance points, and hit six 3s to the Warriors' one. Eight different players scored, and seven had at least one assist.
"We wanted to make them do some things they didn't really want to do tonight," Burlington Central coach Mark Smith said. "We wanted to stop them from pushing the ball up the floor and make them run a half-court offense with more than just one or two passes, and control the tempo with our offense by making them play defense for more than one or two passes.
"We were disciplined and decisive, and executed so well on both ends. That was probably our best game of the season by far, and it came at a great time."
Ross had 14 points and three assists for the Rockets, who had just seven turnovers through the first three periods. Holt added 11 points, and Gerke and Samantha Pryor chipped in seven points apiece.
Burlington Central advances to Monday's Class 3A Hoffman Estates Supersectional, where it will play last year's state runner-up Vernon Hills, a 42-30 winner over Regina Dominican in the Vernon Hills Sectional final.
Harris led Sterling with nine points, five rebounds and three assists, while Strong scored seven. Romano added five points, Pearson had four rebounds, three steals and two assists, and Kaitlyn Bauer dished out three assists. The Warriors shot 44 percent (11-for-25) for the game, including 1-for-7 (14 percent) from 3-point range, and hit only three of their eight free throws.
"Turnovers killed us, and we just struggled to execute on both ends," Sterling coach Julie Schroeder said. "We couldn't get that big spurt to get us over the hump and back in the game, and hats off to Central for that. We just picked a bad time to have an off game."
Class 3A Genoa-Kingston Sectional final
Burlington Central 49, Sterling 26
Star of the game: Kayla Ross, BC, 14 points, 3 steals, 3 assists, 3 rebounds
Key performers: Shelby Holt, BC, 11 points, 3 3-pointers; Kiarra Harris, Sterling, 9 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists; Alexis Strong, Sterling, 7 points
Up next: Class 3A Hoffman Estates Supersectional, Burlington Central vs. Vernon Hills, 7:30 p.m. Monday