OTTAWA – One team, with its back against the wall, played like it. The other, with a chance to clinch at least a piece of the Northern Illinois Big 12 West title, didn't play like it all.
The Ottawa Pirates got off to fast start and closed with a strong finish Thursday at Kingman Gym, downing the Sterling Golden Warriors 46-35. Both teams are now tied for the NIB-12 West lead with two games left.
"I told Julie [Schroeder, Sterling's coach] after the game that you could tell her team had one in hand," Ottawa coach Mike Cooper said. "We knew if we lost tonight, we were done in the conference [race], and our girls came out with an effort that reflected that."
"We can't come out content, especially not against a team that's got something to play for," Sterling junior Kiarra Harris said. "Ottawa played with more energy, and had fight in them tonight, and they deserved to win."
After jumping out to a 15-4 lead early in the second quarter, Ottawa (18-5, 7-1) used a 12-0 run to end the third period and begin the fourth to take control. Catie Carlson scored the final six points of the third, then Jasmin Bailey buried back-to-back 3-pointers to open the fourth, turning a tenuous 29-28 lead into a 41-28 margin.
"Our execution wasn't there, and give credit to Ottawa because their defense was tremendous," Schroeder said. "We fought back after falling behind early, but they hit some big shots and we didn't."
Sterling (14-12, 7-1) struggled on the offensive end all night. The Warriors committed 22 turnovers and only 10 came on Ottawa steals. They shot 1-for-12 (8.3 percent) from 3-point range, the make coming from Stephanie Kester as the final buzzer sounded.
The poor offense canceled out a 35-21 advantage on the boards, and the Warriors forced just five Ottawa turnovers in the game. Sterling managed just four shot attempts in the fourth quarter – the same number of turnovers it committed in the period.
"I thought we played excellent defense, with the exception of a couple of minutes there in the second quarter," Cooper said. "They got a couple of shots to fall, then a couple of layups on slip screens to the basket, but I thought we played really good defense the rest of the way.
"Plus, we really took care of the ball. Bailey only had three 3s, but they were big ones, and Carlson not only scored for us, but also handled the ball well."
Carlson led all scorers with 15 points, and she also dished four assists and nabbed two steals. Bailey had nine points and four steals, and Jaleesa Kindred (7 points, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks) and Cassidy Rice (5 points, 7 rebounds) both had strong all-around games.
"Our girls were really quiet before the game," Cooper said, "and I didn't know if that meant they were nervous or afraid or what. Turns out, they were just extremely focused, and even though there's still a long way to go, we put ourselves in good position [in the conference race]."
Stephanie Kester led Sterling with nine points, and Kaitlyn Bauer added eight points, eight rebounds and two blocks. Harris finished with six points and 18 rebounds, while Gabby Sandoval chipped in four points and five assists.
Sterling fell into a 15-4 deficit 18 seconds into the second quarter, thanks to nine first-period turnovers. The Warriors clawed their way back, though, using a 12-2 run to get within a point, 17-16, with 2:36 left in the first half. Sandoval, Kester and Pearson all hit jumpers to start the run, then Bauer and Harris followed up a Carlson bucket with two baskets in the paint apiece, and Sterling was in business.
The game stayed close for most of the third quarter. Trailing 21-18 at the break, the Warriors scored six of the first eight points of the third quarter to take a 24-23 lead 2:34 into the second half. Kester hit a jumper, then found a cutting Sandoval for another hoop before Harris nailed an elbow jumper.
Baskets by Rice and Kindred put the Pirates back up three, then Carlson sandwiched a floater in the lane between a Kester basket and a McKenna Pearson pull-up jumper for the 29-28 lead.
"We weren't as aggressive in the second half as we were in the second quarter," Harris said. "They didn't back, played like they wanted to win more than we did, and that's something we have to learn from."
"We are most definitely still in good shape for a conference title, which was our No. 1 goal at the start of the year," Schroeder added. "We have to shake this one off, and take care of business in the two conference games we have left."
Ottawa 46, Sterling 35
Star of the game: Catie Carlson, Ottawa, 15 points, 4 assists, 2 steals
Key performers: Jasmin Bailey, Ottawa, 9 points, 4 steals; Jaleesa Kindred, Ottawa, 7 points, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks; Kaitlyn Bauer, Sterling, 8 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks; Kiarra Harris, Sterling, 6 points, 18 rebounds
Up next: Sterling at Kaneland, 4:30 p.m. Saturday