It was a slow start and a slow finish for East on Friday, but what happened in between was good enough for the Leopards to earn their fourth straight victory, taking down Highland 45-41 in girls’ basketball action.

East, which had been averaging nearly 65 points per game entering the contest, struggled mightily in the opening minutes as shot after shot careened off the iron and into the hands of Highland rebounders. The Leopards were lucky to only be down 10-3 entering the second quarter as they went 1 of 11 from the field in the opening eight minutes.

“It was less about us and more about Highland’s defense in the first quarter,” East coach Olosaa Solovi said. “It was an adjustment for our squad. They did a great job of packing the lanes and contesting shots. We knew that would be the case coming in, but I don’t think our girls really believed it until it happened.”

The Leopards busted out of their offensive slump in the second quarter to give themselves an opportunity to take their first lead, but two consecutive turnovers and a 3-pointer by Highland’s Taryn Johnson ended the run and the Rams entered halftime leading 22-19.

“We struggled a lot in that first half of the game,” East junior guard Rita Satini said. “I knew I had to step up and keep my composure and be strong for my team to show them that we can be strong and we won’t let up in the second half.”

The second half did start fast for the Leopards as Satini found fellow junior Deserae Falatea for the opening basket. Falatea then caught fire in the third quarter, scoring seven of her team-leading 11 points in the quarter, which allowed teammate Lani Taliauli to give East its first lead of the game with a pair of free throws to make it 30-28 with 5:05 remaining in the third.

“In the third quarter, we all came out with more heart,” Deserae Falatea said. “I think we realized we were all just getting in our own heads because of the rivalry game. We started crashing the boards and getting easy looks inside.”

Johnson once again came up big with a rebound and putback off her own miss to cut the Ram’s deficit to 38-36 early in the final quarter. Highland’s Kaija Glasker later netted a 3, part of her game-high 17 points, to cut East’s lead to 40-39.

But East freshman guard Lealani Falatea capped her dominant defensive effort with her seventh steal of the night, which led to a layup and a foul to give her nine points on the night and fend off the Highland comeback.

“I was feeding off what the rest of my teammates had been doing on defense,” Lealani Falatea said. “I had struggled with [finishing at the rim] in the past, but having a team like this is good practice for moments like that, so I just went up and finished at the basket.”

That layup proved to be the final field goal of the game as the East defense continued to clamp down in the closing minutes. The Leopards picked up the final of their 15 steals to end any chance of a comeback.

EAST 45, HIGHLAND 41

• East overcomes a 1-for-11 shooting performance in the first quarter to post the win over the rival Rams.

• Senior Lani Taliauli leads East with 11 points and seven rebounds, while junior Deserae Falatea also scores 11 points.

• Highland’s Kaija Glasker leads all scorers with 17 points and five rebounds.