Boys basketball: Sterling starts fast, holds off Rock Falls for Rock River rivalry win

Golden Warriors race to 21-9 first-quarter lead, limit Rocket runs throughout

Sterling’s Nico Battaglia works to put up a shot against Rock Falls Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Rock Falls.

ROCK FALLS – Coming off a Strombom Tournament championship on Saturday in Sycamore, Sterling had plenty of momentum entering Tuesday night’s Rock River rivalry game against Rock Falls at Tabor Gym.

After building a 12-point lead in the first quarter, the Golden Warriors matched the Rockets point-for-point over the next three, cruising to a 63-53 win and pushing their undefeated streak to four games.

Sterling (4-0) set the tone with an 11-0 run through the first 3:32 of the game.

Senior power forward Lucas Austin started it off with a 3-pointer in the first 29 seconds.

“I think finding the open shots, really screening away on the ball [were keys for us],” Sterling junior power forward Maddux Osborn said about the fast start. “Luke Austin just using the [size] advantage in the post. That’s all we did all game, really.”

Rock Falls junior guard Kuitim Heald dribbled behind a screen and drilled a right-wing 3 to end the scoring drought just past the four-minute mark. Senior guard Gavin Sands then hit a top-of-the-key 3 about 40 seconds later, drawing the Rockets within 11-6.

But Rock Falls (3-2) would draw no closer.

Rock Falls’ Kuitim Heald drives to the hoop against Sterling Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 at Rock Falls.

Sterling closed the first quarter on a 10-3 run, pushing its lead to 21-9.

“It’s a lot easier to score [when we outrebound them], because the second-chance opportunities are what usually kills us,” Austin said about Sterling, which held a 19-7 rebounding advantage in the first half. “When we get to those and kill the other team, it’s always nice.”

After Rock Falls junior guard Ryken Howard made a layup and senior guard Aydan Goff hit a free throw to pull within 21-12 early in the second quarter, Sterling surged again.

Austin buried a left-wing 3, then junior guard Kaedon Phillips grabbed a steal and assisted junior guard Nico Battaglia on a fast-break layup for a 26-12 lead with 4:56 to play in the first half.

A pair of Battaglia free throws stretched the lead to 34-20 with 21.9 seconds left. Rock Falls junior point guard Nehemiah Menendez hit a corner 3 to cut it to 34-23 just before halftime.

“Just the Sterling game jitters. Everyone just had to calm down,” Heald said about settling in after the slow start. “It’s a fast-paced game. We just needed to slow the ball down and play defense, play backside, especially when there’s a 6-foot-7 kid and we have no one to match up against him.”

The Rockets never scored more than three straight points against the Golden Warriors’ starters in the second half, and their smallest deficit was eight points.

A putback and free throw by senior forward Devin Tanton-DeJesus drew Rock Falls within 37-29 late in the third quarter. Sterling senior guard Andre Klaver hit a buzzer-beater 3 to move the margin to 47-35.

“We just knew the first four minutes coming out, we just had to finish it right there,” Osborn said about the start of the second half. “Get them killed. Then we did it. It was going rough, we gave them a lot of second-chance opportunities in the second half, but overall I think we played a really good game.”

Rock Falls got within 49-40 with six minutes left on a right-corner 3 by Goff, then 52-43 a minute later on three consecutive Goff free throws.

But Klaver answered for Sterling once again, scoring six points in the last 4:12 to seal the win.

“We just had to lock up, because we felt we gave up way too many open shots to their shooters,” Austin said about the second half approach. “We just had to lock up and make sure they had to work for their points.”

Austin finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds and three assists, Klaver totaled 19 points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals and Phillips tallied 10 points, five steals and three rebounds.

Battaglia contributed six points, three rebounds and three assists and Osborn chipped in six points and eight rebounds for Sterling.

Heald led Rock Falls with 17 points and five rebounds, Goff tallied 11 points, three steals and two rebounds, Menendez scored six points, Sands contributed five points and five rebounds and Tanton-DeJesus added five points and four rebounds.

Sterling’s Lucas Austin puts up a shot against Rock Falls’ Devin Tanton-Dejesus Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Rock Falls.
Dan Wussow

Dan Wussow

Dan is the sports editor for Sauk Valley Media. Previously, he wrote for The Post-Crescent in his hometown of Appleton, WI.