ROCK FALLS – Tuesday night's nonconference game between the rival Sterling Golden Warriors and Rock Falls Rockets was a microcosm of each team's season so far.
Sterling built a big lead, then watched it almost slip away. Rock Falls dug itself a hole, then saw a frantic comeback effort fall short.
The Rockets whittled the Warriors' 19-point lead to one in the final 3 minutes, but Sterling prevailed 69-66 at Tabor Gym.
"Coach [Jim] Preston said our team is like a puzzle," Sterling senior Zach Rehmert said. "We've got the first three pieces down, which are playing well early on and building up that lead. We're struggling with that fourth piece right now, but we've been doing whatever it takes to get the win in the end."
"All year, we've been behind and had to come back," Rock Falls coach Brad Bickett said. "I'm happy with the way the kids kept fighting, but it's all about confidence. All it takes is a win, and some of that confidence will start coming back."
Those first three pieces were indeed strong for the Warriors (6-7). A balanced effort saw all nine players who saw action score in the first half, and Sterling didn't trail after the 3:15 mark of the first quarter.
Trailing 7-5 after three early buckets by Rock Falls junior Jacob Mammosser and a free throw from sophomore James McFadden, Sterling Thornton buried a 3-pointer off a feed from Rehmert to put the Warriors ahead 8-7.
That 3 ignited a 24-3 run over the next 5 minutes, 7 seconds, giving Sterling a 29-10 lead 2 minutes into the second quarter.
"That was the hottest start we've had this year," Rehmert said, "and we definitely felt like we were in the flow."
"We just played good team basketball," Sterling junior Joe Brouilette added. "We got the ball to our open shooters, we moved it down into the post, and we turned our defense into offense."
The Rockets (4-10) fought back, closing the final 5:38 of the first half with a 20-12 surge. Austin Donoho had a pair of three-point plays and also hit a 3-pointer, and Aaron Frank's two 3s in the final minute cut Sterling's lead to 11 (41-30) at the break.
The Warriors stayed hot through halftime, opening the third with a 15-7 run on two baskets and two free throws from Brouilette, a 2 and a 3 from Sterling Thornton, and buckets by Rehmert and Draque Penaflor-Heier.
Sterling led 56-37 with 2:06 left in the quarter.
"We have a lot of guys on the floor at all times that can make plays and hit shots," Rehmert said. "When we move the ball well, get it down low into the kill zone for layups or kickouts to shooters, we're tough to beat."
"We just weren't in good enough position on defense," Donoho said. "They hit a few shots with hands in their faces, and you just have to tip your hats to them when they do that. It's frustrating, but we just had to keep working."
That work finally paid off over the game's final 10 minutes. Daegan Wharff's putback with 1:51 left in the third were the first two of 10 straight points for the Rockets, highlighted by a 3 and a 2 by freshman Logan Pillars on back-to-back possessions.
Early in the fourth quarter, Wharff turned Cory McCallister's drive-and-dish into a layup, then Mammosser took over.
The junior, who had been quiet since the game's early stages, scored 11 consecutive points for Rock Falls, finishing his own personal 11-3 run with a three-point play on a putback of his own miss before nailing a 3 from the left corner to get the Rockets within 63-62 with 3:08 to play.
"Jacob's such a good player, and we know that he can have games like this," Bickett said. "We've felt bad because he's had some bad luck this season at times, and we hope a game like this tonight will build his confidence."
"I was looking at the scoreboard, and I couldn't believe it," Rehmert said. "Mammosser's just going off, and the lead kept shrinking. None of us thought there was any way we were going to lose that game, but we really had to suck it up and work for it at the end."
Sterling did just enough to pull it out, but the Warriors kept things interesting. They missed free throws on two occasions that would have made their margin four, and also missed a 3 and an elbow jumper to give the Rockets possession back.
But a free throw by Isaiah Celestino pushed the Sterling lead to three (69-66) with 16.7 seconds left, and the Rockets missed two 3s in the final 10 seconds that would have sent the game into overtime.
"The kids did some good things to build the lead," Preston said, "then refused to crack when Rock Falls had all the momentum at the end."
"We knew Rock Falls was going to make a run at us," Brouilette said, "and we just had to stay as calm as we could and make free throws and plays when we needed to."
Brouilette led the Warriors with 17 points and 12 rebounds, and Thornton added 15 points, three assists and two steals. Rehmert and Penaflor-Heier scored 12 points apiece, with Rehmert adding seven rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block; Penaflor-Heier pulled down five boards.
Donoho finished with 17 points, five assists, four rebounds and two steals, while Wharff led the Rockets with 13 rebounds to go with his 13 points. Mammosser had 19 points, four rebounds and three steals.
"It just takes a lot of heart to come back," Mammosser said. "We got down, and we just had to try harder.
"But it's still a loss, and we have to start winning games like this."
Sterling 69, Rock Falls 66
Star of the game: Joe Brouilette, Sterling, 17 points, 12 rebounds
Key performers: Zach Rehmert, Sterling, 12 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals; Sterling Thornton, Sterling, 15 points, 3 assists, 2 steals; Jacob Mammosser, RF, 19 points, 4 rebounds, 3 steals; Austin Donoho, RF, 17 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals; Daegan Wharff, RF, 13 points, 13 rebounds
Up next: Stillman Valley at Rock Falls, 7:15 p.m. Thursday; Sterling at Ottawa, 7:30 p.m. Friday