STERLING – The Golden Warriors trailed by 25 points at halftime before whittling away the deficit, getting it to single digits early in the fourth quarter – and down to three with the ball in their hands with 1.6 seconds on the clock.
But Peoria had the inbounds pass well-defended on the final play, and Isaiah Ryan’s bid at a buzzer-beating, game-tying 3-pointer was off the mark as the Lions held on for the 69-66 win on Saturday at Musgrove Fieldhouse.
Peoria still led by seven, 66-59, with 1:02 on the clock following a pair of free throws from Lerone Allen. Sterling’s Aidan Shore answered with a basket in the paint, then after Peoria’s Rayquan Browder hit one of two free throws, Shore put back a missed 3-point attempt by Ryan to get the Warriors within four.
Trevor Vos came through with a steal, but Allen stole it right back and cruised in for a layup to put the Lions up 69-63. Cooper Willman then hit a 3-pointer, and Vos grabbed another steal with 9 seconds left to set up one final chance for Sterling, but the Warriors couldn’t convert.
“We kind of played with a sense of urgency,” Ryan said. “We decided to trap in the second half, trap everything and rotate on the back side and let our defense translate to offense.”
Sterling (15-9) began the process of digging out of the halftime hole with an 9-0 run to open the third quarter, grabbing steals on Peoria’s first four possessions, three by Alek Duran and one by Willman.
“We just picked up full-court and started getting down and working,” Sterling’s Trevon Jordan said. “We picked up the energy that second half. The first half, we had no energy.”
Sterling turned those into points, with Jordan knocking
down a 3-pointer and scoring on a putback, and Duran twice hitting layups to cut the deficit to 44-28.
“Game-changer. It gave us energy,” Sterling coach Ryan Vasquez said. “It gave the crowd energy, and we were able to capitalize on it and ride with it all the way to the end. That’s exactly who they are, and exactly what we need.”
Peoria (7-20) got the lead back to 20 points with a pair of free throws from Michael Cade II and a steal and layup by Dionysius Hogan, but Sterling responded with an 8-2 run.
The Lions shot 19-for-28 from the field in the first half, but struggled to shoot in the second half, hitting just six shots from the field, all from 2-point range.
“They were running and jumping and double-teaming and speeding us up,” Peoria coach Dan Ruffin said. “Our guys just had to maintain. It was tough. They kept turning us over, but we did enough to hold on.”
Peoria turned the ball over just twice in the first half, both on traveling calls, but Sterling’s defense forced 16 turnovers in the second half, and swiped nine steals in the third quarter alone. Duran finished the game with six of his team’s 14 steals.
In the first half, Sterling’s offense struggled while Peoria was hitting shots left and right. The Warriors shot 5-for-17 from the field in the opening two quarters, and didn’t break into double digits until Jordan converted a three-point play midway through the second.
In the meantime, Hogan and Christopher Williams each scored 12 in the first half, with Hogan scoring 10 in the first quarter and Williams adding nine.
“They were making shots,” Ruffin said. “They were doing the things we were asking them to do offensively, wait for their shots, take good shots, attack the basket.”
Williams capped off the half with a 3-pointer from the corner off an inbounds play over two Warriors defenders as time expired, sending Sterling into the locker room on the wrong end of a 44-19 score.
“I think we were kind of embarrassed, to be honest,” Ryan said. “We needed to take it to heart a little bit more. We needed to come out with a sense of urgency. In the locker room [at halftime], we talked it over with our coaches, with our teammates, and we decided that that’s what we’re going to do, and I think we found a new defense tonight that’s going to work for us for a while.”
Sterling turned up the tempo in the second half. Peoria’s 44 first-half points came on just 27 possessions. The Warriors had 40 possessions in the second half.
“Tonight really changed us,” Jordan said. “If we keep playing like that against other teams, nobody’s going to want to face us.”
Peoria Central 69, Sterling 66
Star of the game: Aidan Shore, Sterling, 24 points, 10 rebounds, 9 blocked shots
Key performers: Dionysius Hogan, Peoria, 20 points; Christopher Williams, Peoria, 14 points, 6 rebounds; Alek Duran, Sterling, 9 points, 6 steals; Trevon Jordan, Sterling, 14 points
Up next: Sterling at LaSalle-Peru, 7 p.m. Tuesday