ROCK FALLS – The buzzer sounded at Tabor Gym, and the Mendota Trojans gave more of a sigh of relief than a cheer of celebration.
The Trojans survived bad free-throwing shooting and a resurgent Sterling Golden Warrior team for a 63-60 win, after Mendota led by as many as 21 points.
"We just waited too long," Sterling junior Alex Soriano said. "We've been starting slow all season, and we did it again tonight. We got going in the fourth quarter, but it was too late."
Soriano provided a moment of hope by hitting a long 3-pointer with 27.9 seconds left in the game. It brought Sterling as close as four points at 61-57.
Sterling (11-18) quickly fouled Evan Carroll on the inbounds pass. For the third time in the quarter, Carroll made the back end of the double bonus to make it 62-57. Mendota made 5 of 13 free throw attempts in the fourth quarter.
The Warriors brought the ball upcourt and got open opportunities for Tanner Dewitt and Cornell Hartz before Zack Everett was fouled with 10 seconds left.
Everett made the first, but missed the second free throw. Sterling fouled Trae Blumhorst on the rebound.
Blumhorst made one free throw then missed the second. Zach Rehmert was allowed to drive downcourt for a layup to end the game.
"When I hit the 3-pointer, I thought for sure that the team was going to be able to come back," Soriano said. "It felt great. We just didn't have quite enough time to come all the way back."
Sterling relied on the 3-pointer in the first quarter. Sterling Thornton, Rehmert and Everett each hit one to help build an 11-4 lead.
That's when the wheels fell off for Sterling, as the Warriors scored eight points the rest of the half.
Mendota (17-12) started its rally with 3-pointers by Carroll and Blumhorst to pull within a point at 11-10.
Two Mark Prescott free throws gave Mendota a 12-11 advantage, and then a basket by Blumhorst and a 3 by Carroll made it 17-11 at the end of the quarter.
Two more free throws by James Carroll to start the second quarter wrapped up a 15-0 run by Mendota.
"We hit a a few shots and were playing right with them the first few minutes," Sterling coach Jim Preston said. "Then we started to struggle. We've struggled at the beginning of games all season, and we haven't figured out why.
"We had a lot of players in their first year of varsity experience. That probably had a lot to do with it."
Mendota kept cruising all the way through the third quarter, in which it built its largest lead at 50-29 with 1:43 left in the quarter.
Sterling scored 23 points in the fourth quarter to rally back, spreading the ball around. Seven different Warriors tallied points in the last 8 minutes, and Soriano and Rehmert had the most in that stretch with six points apiece.
Rehmert finished with 15 points, while Thornton was the only other Warrior to crack double digits with 11. Soriano and Hartz each had eight.
Evan Carroll had 15 points for Mendota. Blumhorst finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds, while James Carroll had 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Mendota will play the top-seeded Rock Falls Rockets today at 6 p.m. in a semifinal game.
Star of the game: James Carroll, Mendota, 13 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists
Key performers: Zach Rehmert, Sterling, 15 points; Trae Blumenhorst, Mendota, 14 points, 12 rebounds
Up next: Class 3A Rock Falls Regional semifinal – Mendota vs. Rock Falls, 6 p.m. today