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When Willowbrook coach Terry Harrell watches West Aurora, the familiarity hits close to home.
"They remind me of my team last year," said Harrell, whose Warriors went 15-15 a year ago. "They're in every game, they have the ability to beat everybody and at the end of the year they'll look at about 10 plays that made the difference between being .500 and having a really good record."
A year older, and a year better, Harrell's No. 3-seeded and 19th-ranked Warriors were pushed by West Aurora before advancing 51-44 in Wednesday's first round of the Bill Neibch Falcon Holiday Classic at Wheaton North.
Harrell and his kids knew to expect a fight.
First off, they were placed in the dreaded 9 a.m. game morning after Christmas. Add to that, a young and quick West Aurora team is probably better than the 14th-best team at Wheaton North, which only seeds the top eight.
Sure enough, the Blackhawks (6-7) went back and forth with Willowbrook (11-2) early and led 22-20 with 2:53 left in the first half after the third 3-pointer by 5 foot sophomore guard Alexis Wiggins. Willowbrook, though, finished the half on an 8-3 run, taking the lead for good on a pair of Anita Sterling free throws.
"We have a bad reputation for morning games, but today we came out strong," Sterling said. "Our coaches did a good job preparing a scouting report for us and we were able to capitalize on their weaknesses."
Sterling's shooting sizzled, as she scored 9 of her game-high 21 points in the second quarter. She made 6 of her 8 field-goal attempts and 6 of 7 at the free-throw line.
"Anita was a beast today," Harrell said. "She scored for us and she was a beast on the boards."
And Willowbrook needs all it can get right now from Sterling and fellow guards Angela Bruno and Molly Krawczykowski, with starting guard Colleen Krawczykowski sidelined with a stress fracture in her foot.
All three played at least 30 minutes Wednesday, Molly Krawczykowski going all 32. Bruno's 3-pointer gave Willowbrook its biggest lead, 43-33 seconds into the fourth quarter. Still up 9 with a minute left, Willowbrook's lead was sliced to 3 on a Wiggins 3, a steal in the backcourt and a Carley Frauenhoff three-point play. But Willowbrook held on.
"We make the plays at the right times now," Harrell said. "That's what we've been lucky enough to do this season, is we make plays at the right time."
Wiggins hit 5 of West Aurora's eight 3s in an impressive shooting display. Erin Jacobsen added 8 points.
Save for a short spell during the middle two quarters, Connie Siljendahl's Blackhawks who play just one senior battled Willowbrook to a standstill.
"We did some really good things at times, and then we kind of fell apart at times," Siljendahl said. "We just have to be a little more consistent."
Bruno and Erma Udota added 9 points apiece for Willowbrook, which advances to play Glenbard South at 3 p.m. Thursday.
Off to a fast start this season, the Warriors would love to make a further statement this week.
"This is an opportunity for our girls," Harrell said. "I tell them every time 'This is the team that nobody knows about.'"
Follow Josh on Twitter @jwelge96