STERLING – For most of Thursday night's game against the LaSalle-Peru Cavaliers, the Sterling Golden Warriors executed their offense nearly flawlessly.
For the first half at Musgrove Fieldhouse, Sterling's defense was stellar as well.
But as the Cavaliers clawed back into the game after halftime, the Warriors had all the answers in the end, winning the Northern Illinois Big 12 West matchup 60-48.
"That early lead really gets us going," Sterling senior Kaitlyn Bauer said, "and it actually makes us get a little crazy going after steals and running the floor. Once we slow down a little, though, we can hold the lead and keep things going."
Putbacks by Bauer and Kiarra Harris capped a 15-4 run in the game's opening 6 minutes, then Sterling (13-8, 3-1) stretched the lead to 18 (28-10) with a 12-2 run over the first 4½ minutes of the second quarter. Harris and Bauer each had four points, including buckets off steals, and the Warriors were cruising.
Expecting the Cavaliers' zone defense, Sterling executed its short-corner offense to a tee, often finding Bauer and Harris on the baseline for layups or kick-out passes to guards Gabby Sandoval and Kayleen Terrock.
"We rotated the ball, kept things moving, and broke down their zone," Harris said. "We'd find an open shooter, and we were knocking the shots down."
Defense was Sterling's calling card for the first 16 minutes. The Warriors forced LaSalle-Peru (11-10, 1-3) into 16 first-half turnovers, and limited the Cavs to four second-chance points while scoring nine of their own.
"It's just everybody doing their job, boxing out and being aggressive," Harris said. "When we do the little things, everything usually falls our way."
LaSalle-Peru went on a pair of mini-runs in the third quarter, cutting the deficit to as little as nine points on two occasions. Hannah Wolfe was the catalyst, turning several passes from point guard Jena Argubright into layups, or putting back her own misses.
Wolfe scored 12 of her game-high 21 points after halftime, and also finished with 15 rebounds. Argubright dished nine assists, and her two free throws with 29.4 seconds left in the third brought the Cavs to within 45-36.
"We've been down and come back from great deficits before," Wolfe said, "and we were really excited in the second half when we kept getting closer. We executed a lot better on offense, and picked up our defense to make it a little harder for them to score."
The key to the Warriors keeping pace was the interior play of Bauer and Harris. The two seniors, who have been playing together since sixth grade, showed how in sync they were with several nifty post-to-post passes and cuts for layups to keep the Cavs at bay.
"There's great chemistry between us," Harris said, "and we trust each other and know what the other is going to do. It's fun to be out there with her and execute so well in the lane."
Two Argubright assists led to a 3 and a 2 early in the fourth quarter, cutting Sterling's lead to 49-41 with 6:53 to play. But back-to-back Harris-to-Bauer connections for layups stopped that LP spurt, and Gabby Sandoval followed with consecutive layups – the first on a baseline drive, the second on a Bauer drive-and-dish play after Sterling ran nearly a minute off the clock – to restore order.
Carolynn Hammelman's wide-open drive for a layup put the finishing touches on things inside the final minute, as the Cavs' defense was so spread out from the Warriors' stall game that there was no help when Anna Konczak gambled and cut into the passing lane a fraction of a second too late.
"We wanted to stay aggressive, keep creating on offense and keep them off-balance," Bauer said. "We executed well, we played hard, and we showed mental and physical toughness tonight … and that's something we need to have every game, especially in conference play."
Harris finished with 20 points, seven rebounds, two steals and three blocks, and Bauer added 19 points, seven boards and three steals; each had two assists. Sandoval had seven points and three assists, Terrock chipped in five points, four assists and two steals, and Hammelman had four points and three rebounds.
In addition to Wolfe's double-double, Alexa Zimbelman scored 11 points and grabbed five rebounds for the Cavaliers. Konczak nabbed three steals, Wolfe added four blocks, and Madison Held and Quincie Weber scored four points apiece.
"The first half, we looked totally unprepared to play this game," LP coach Vickery Hollis said. "All of the things I wrote on the board were about intensity and aggressivness, and we did none of it. I was upset at halftime, but the effort we gave in the second half – both physically and mentally – I can swallow that."
Sterling 60, LaSalle-Peru 48
Star of the game: Hannah Wolfe, LP, 21 points, 15 rebounds, 4 blocks
Key performers: Kiarra Harris, Sterling, 20 points, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 assists, 2 steals; Kaitlyn Bauer, Sterling, 19 points, 7 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists
Up next: Sterling at Ottawa, 6 p.m. today