ROCK FALLS – The student sections from Sterling and Rock Falls met under the hoop at Tabor Gym on Tuesday after a long night of cheering ... and shook hands. Some even hugged.
It was such an amiable meeting that Rock Falls' athletic director, Rich Montgomery, walked back toward the middle of the gym with any scent of trouble dissipating in the ozone up in the rafters.
It was quaint to see that two crowds that spent 2 hours yelling at each other put away the animosity once the buzzer sounded on Sterling's 69-66 win.
It showed a level maturity in the groups, and the lesson to let the rivalry stick to between the lines.
Lessons were sort of the theme for the night, in that the teams from both sides left hoping they can start learning fast.
The game, as my partner in coverage, Ty Reynolds, put it, was a microcosm of the season for both programs.
For most of three quarters, the Warriors looked like a dynamic bunch with dangerous shooters like Zach Rehmert and Sterling Thornton, who know when to sling it and know when to pull down the ball and drive to the hoop.
"It's a great feeling to know we can run our offense that well," Rehmert said. "Now, we just have to do it for four full quarters."
"Every guy out there was diving on the floor, getting fired up and making sure their comeback fell short. We've learned that we can play at a high level, and now we just have to do it consistently."
Then the fourth quarter started. The Warriors' offense suddenly shrank to passing the ball around the perimeter and hoping to not turn the ball over.
At one point, Rehmert even shrugged his shoulders and asked his coach what he was supposed to do after the Rockets had nearly stolen a pass.
Gradually, the Rockets cut a 19-point deficit all the way down to one point with 3:08 left.
Right before the buzzer, the Rockets had two looks at a 3-pointer to tie the score.
"It was pick your posion there for awhile, and I'm sure Brad [Bickett] felt the same way when we were making our run early on," Sterling coach Jim Preston said. "He wants to know why his kids can't got off to better starts, and why they have to dig holes for themselves; I want to get our kids to close out stronger and not make things so ... interesting at the end."
The Warriors' get-a-lead-and-then-let-it-go mode has bitten the Warriors (6-7) often this season. Just on Friday, they held a big lead over Streator at Musgrove Fieldhouse, only to see the Bulldogs nearly climb all the way back.
For the Rockets (4-10), it was another case of missed opportunities. Most glaringly, the 7-for-22 they shot in the paint.
If even half those shots fall, the Warriors don't build a double-digit lead, forcing the Rockets to play catchup.
The encouraging sign is that the Rockets didn't give up, and they haven't all season.
The Rockets scratched and clawed all the way back, led by Jacob Mammosser – who was engaged in quite the battle with another hustle hound in Joe Brouilette.
Mammosser took little consolation in almost winning.
"You'd like take more from a game like this, but it's still a loss," Mammosser said. "We have to start winning games like this."
But sooner or later, the wins are going to come for these Rockets. They have too much talent and too much guts to not let it happen.
"There's a lot of lessons that can be learned from this," Bickett said. "You hope that they keep applying the things they learn out there in other things in life. You hope that when things are going bad that they don't give up."
It'll just take one win to put them over the hump on the court. Same goes for the Warriors. Sooner or later, they'll do the small things to put a team away when they have a big lead.
And then, they'll be happy to talk about the lessons learned.