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ROCKFORD -- There's an adage in basketball that never rang truer than it did here Monday night.
And Streamwood senior Jessica Cerda is a shooter.
Never mind the fact Cerda was 0 for her first 10 on 3-point attempts. When the game was on the line, the Chicago State recruit hit nothing but the bottom of the net.
With the Sabres trailing Cary-Grove and less than 4 minutes to play, Cerda put the 0-for-10 behind her by burying the go-ahead 3-pointer, lifting the Sabres to a thrilling 45-44 win over the Trojans in the first semifinal of the Class 4A Rockford East sectional.
"She's a senior and we never told her to stop shooting," said Sabres' coach George Rosner amid the jubilant Sabre celebration. "She never let down when the shots weren't falling and tonight might be the best defense I've ever seen Jess play."
The win catapults the Sabres (22-8) into a sectional final for the first time since 1988. They will return to Rockford Thursday at 7:30 p.m. to play the winner of tonight's game between Huntley and Machesney Park Harlem.
"Everybody always tells me shooters shoot," said Cerda, who had a game-high 22 points as well as 6 rebounds, 6 steals and 5 assists. "I didn't get down on myself and that proved to be true."
For most of the night, Cary-Grove (23-7) was in control, but the Trojans could never widen their lead enough in the fourth quarter to go into their patented four-corners offense.
"We didn't take care of the ball and (Streamwood) turned up the heat," said C-G coach Rod Saffert, whose team had a whopping 34 turnovers. "We had all kinds of shots that didn't go in. The opportunities were there."
Cary-Grove actually shot well for the game, going 20 of 41 to Streamwood's 16-for-45, but turnovers and 23 steals by the Sabres squelched the Trojans' quest for a second straight sectional final appearance. Streamwood had 25 turnovers as both teams played stellar ball-pressure defense.
"There were some panic moments," said Rosner. "We made some bad mistakes and they made some bad mistakes. The character of the defense both teams played set up a lot of the turnovers."
Cary-Grove jumped out to a 10-2 lead but unlike two years ago, when the Streamwood seniors were playing varsity and got behind big early in a 21-point loss to Cary-Grove in a regional final, the Sabres didn't wilt.
"We talked about that," said Rosner. "We didn't panic this time. We came back."
The Sabres outscored the Trojans 8-2 the rest of the first quarter and then took a temporary lead in the second before trailing 23-20 at halftime after Kiley Smith and Olivia Jakubicek each scored in the final 42 seconds.
The Trojans stretched the lead to 27-20 early in the third quarter as Joslyn Nicholson and Megan Leisten scored to open the second half. But the Sabres came back with a 7-0 run to tie the game. The Trojans worked their way to a 36-31 lead on a 3 from sophomore Katie Barker with 5:19 to play.
But that's when Cerda and fellow senior Deja Moore took over for the Sabres. Cerda, who was able to penetrate the Cary-Grove defense several times for layups, spotted up at the top of the circle and drilled her first 3 of the night with 4:23 left to make it 36-34. Nicholson scored for the Trojans, but then Cerda made 2 free throws to make it 38-36 and after a Cary-Grove turnover, she took a feed from junior Hannah McGlone underneath to tie the game at 38.
After a Cary-Grove missed shot, Cerda again got open at the top of the circle and again hit nothing but net, giving the Sabres a 41-38 lead with 2:40 to play. The Sabres stretched the lead to 43-38 on 2 free throws from Moore with 2:01 to go, but Cary-Grove came back with two layups from junior Abby Glaysher off assists from Jakubicek to make it a 43-42 game with 57 seconds to go. Cerda then missed a contested shot underneath but was able to poke the rebound outside to Moore, who was fouled with 13 seconds to go. She made both free throws -- the Sabres were 11 of 15 from the line on the night -- and Cary-Grove, needing a 3-pointer to tie, couldn't get anything but a layup with less than one second left.
"I was just thinking about how bad we wanted this," said Moore, who just last year was a 50 percent free-throw shooter, of going to the free-throw line twice in the final 2 minutes. "This is the team we've been the whole year."
Moore had 13 points and 6 steals for the Sabres, while McGlone pulled down 8 rebounds and had 3 assists.
"She works at (free throws) all the time," said Rosner of Moore, "and now she's clutch."
"We played like it was our last game," Cerda said. "There's no words to describe this right now. We just didn't want it to end."
Jakubicek closed out her outstanding Cary-Grove career with 15 points, 16 rebounds and 5 assists. Nicholson, also a senior who is headed to Olivet Nazarene University, had 8 points and Barker added 7 with 4 steals. The Trojans, though, were just 3 of 12 from the free-throw line.
"You have to hit your free throws and take care of the basketball," Saffert said. "I think we just got caught up in the moment. But nights like this are meant to make you better, not bitter. We had a good season."