BELOIT — Vincent Palen's free throws played a huge role in Beloit finally putting an end to Sacred Heart's lengthy league winning streak.
But his steal in the game's final minute may have been the difference maker in a tight game between the two teams at the top of the North Central Activities Association.
Palen had nine of his game-high 19 points in the fourth quarter, helping the Trojans hold on for a 58-51 victory and end Sacred Heart's string of 45 consecutive wins in league play.
Beloit, ranked No. 3 in Class 3A, improved to 12-1 on the season and 6-0 in league play.
"We've been tested of late," Beloit coach Ryan Eilert said. "Our last four games have been like this. Back and forth where teams are battling, and we've been able to knock down some shots and free throws late in the game to get wins in all of them."
The Knights, whose last league loss came in the 2014-15 season, fall to 9-3, 5-1. The two teams will play again February 12 in Salina.
"The kids know a month from (today) is the first round of sub-state and they also know their only job is to just get better," Sacred Heart coach Brian Gormley said. "As long as that happens, all the rest of the stuff can fall where it may."
The Knights trailed by as many as nine points in the second half and were down six nearly two minutes into the fourth quarter.
Back-to-back baskets from Charlie Skidmore and a 3-pointer from Tate Herrenbruck kept the Knights close. When Herrenbruck made a pair of free throws with 55 seconds to play, Sacred Heart trailed 51-49.
Palen was fouled and made the front end of a one-and-one to make it a three-point lead. The Knights got the defensive rebound, giving them the ball with a chance to tie.
But Palen came up with a steal before the ball ever made it out of Beloit's end of the floor. He was fouled again, made both ends of the one-and-one this time for a 54-49 lead with 42 seconds remaining.
"I could see Vinnie running over there, making a beeline there for a steal," Gormley said. "He just made a real gamer-type play and read the situation. We had Trace (Leners) do that a couple of times for us, but guys that are alert to situations wind up making plays in big moments."
"Vinnie played a great fourth quarter, was able to knock down free throws late and handled the game," Eilert said. "And that steal was huge. They had a chance to come down and tie it, and instead he's going back to the line for two free throws."
A Skidmore basket for the last of his 18 points cut the lead to three again, but Palen made four free throws on the next two possessions to close it out.
Sacred Heart, playing for the first time since January 11, had a tough night shooting from the perimeter and were outscored 21-9 behind the 3-point line. Carson Cox had four 3-pointers and finished with 16 points for Beloit.
"We didn't play our best game but a lot of that is due to your opponent," Gormley said. "We knew they were going to be tough getting to the rim on. We actually did a better job maybe playing off the ball, getting to the basket than we have most games.
"Beloit was still able to get out and challenge shots on the perimeter. I was impressed with their ablity to be tough in the lane, which is something we've seen before on film, but to also get back out and challenge shooters was impressive."
Herrenbruck had 15 points and Leners finished with eight points and 12 rebounds.
Beloit girls 57,
Sacred Heart 52
Hoping to get a huge league win on the road and move into a tie atop the NCAA standings, Sacred Heart could not hold on to a six-point lead midway through the fourth quarter as Beloit rallied for the win.
"It was a tough game all the way," Sacred Heart coach Arnold Schmidtberger said. "There was a stretch where they were on fire during a critical part of the game.
"We couldn't get a shot to fall and they didn't miss."
Sacred Heart (8-4, 4-2) got a 3-pointer from Amber Palen and baskets from Emilee Everett and Hannah Goetz in an 8-0 run that put the Knights up 49-43 with 4:26 to play.
Beloit (8-5, 4-2) followed with 12 unanswered points over the next six possessions, including eight points from senior Sydney Barrett in that stretch.
"It may have been experience," Beloit coach Shauna Remus said. "We've been in some close games and we were finally able to put an ending together."
Sacred Heart got a 3-pointer from the left wing from Ella Gotti to make it 55-52 with one minute remaining, then had a chance to tie on the next possession. When the 3-point attempt did not fall, Barrett made two more free throws for the game's final points.
Shea Larson had 23 points for Beloit, including nine in the third quarter to keep the Trojans close. Barrett finished with 19 points.
Everett had a career-high 19 points for Sacred Heart, including her team's first 10 points in the game. Palen had all nine of her points in the second half.
"We came to Beloit in the middle of January, played a really tough team and played well," Schmidtberger said. "It stings right now but it was a tough, competitive game and we battled the whole way."