Winning the consolation championship in a high school basketball tournament is like winning the Miss Congeniality Award in the Miss America Pageant.
It’s an honor, to be sure, but it doesn’t really add much to your resume.
Unless you’re a member of the Evanston girls basketball team, which won 3 of 4 games at the Montini Christmas Tournament and will enter the New Year with an 11-6 record and the confidence to play with any team in the state of Illinois.
The Wildkits bounced back from a 52-42 loss to Proviso East in the opening round with consecutive victories over 5th ranked Benet Academy (47-43), Lake Zurich (52-40) and Lyons Township (38-35) at the state’s toughest holiday invitational for girls teams.
And head coach Brittanny Johnson believes that bringing home that consolation championship trophy might be the start of bigger and better things for her squad, a pivotal moment in what started out to be a rebuilding season, at least on paper.
“People may say it’s only a consolation championship, but we played a lot of quality teams in that consolation bracket,” Johnson said. “Every coach I talked to there was complimenting us because they knew we lost so much (all 5 starters to graduation) from last year. They said ‘oh, wow, you guys are still really good.’ They saw that the talent is still here.
“We crashed and burned in the last 4 minutes against Proviso East after leading the entire game, but we learned a lot from that game. We gave up 30 offensive rebounds in that game and turned the ball over 6 or 7 times in a row in the fourth quarter. Proviso got the rebound every time they missed a shot, and I think that game hurt our pride. They finally understood the importance of rebounding and that we weren’t giving enough effort.
“Last year we finished 2-2 at Montini and I thought we took a huge step backward as a team. But I couldn’t be happier with how much more confident we are now. Nobody wants to peak this early in January and we still need to get better. But we’re in a good place right now. We have played one of the tougher schedules in the state — 5 of our losses have been to ranked teams — and all of those losses have come at the end of games because we didn’t play with enough composure. Now, when we have the lead, I’ve seen them go out and execute in those moments.”
All-tournament guard Kayla Henning led the way for the Wildkits in the scoring column over the four-day tourney, but the Kits also got significant contributions from almost every player on the roster, including junior SyAnn Holmes, senior TaMia Banks and sophomore Jayla Turchin.
“I think it’s to our advantage that we really don’t know where our scoring is going to come from, and it’s very hard to scout us,” said the ETHS coach. “We have a lot of girls who will score 6 or 8 points and I like it that way, because it means we’re not depending on just one person. When I came back (after missing 6 games due to her late mother’s illness) I really saw the development of some of the girls. Kayla played at an all-tournament level, SyAnn came out of the tournament as our best defensive player and is starting to score more and play more aggressive, and (former starter) Nadia Thorman-McKey has responded well now that she’s coming off the bench.”
Henning, a sophomore, rose to the occasion even though she had to play virtually every minute of the tournament. Recently promoted Tyler Mayne, another sophomore, was supposed to provide backcourt relief for Henning when she came up from the JV squad, but she missed the tourney after pulling a muscle in her chest.
“Kayla really stepped up and was one of the leading scorers at the tournament,” Johnson noted. “She had to play a lot more minutes because Tyler was injured and there was much more pressure on her. I’ve always known she’d be a special player for us, but her game was missing that confidence. This was a great opportunity for her to show what she can do and she did enough so that now her name is a name that people will remember. She shot well and finished well against some of the great defensive teams we were up against.
“We’re right where wanted to be, and where we expected to be, as a team now. We’re in the driver’s seat for the conference (the Kits travel to Niles West on Friday when they resume Central Suburban League South division play) and for our seeding for the (Illinois High School Association) playoffs. I think our destiny is in our own hands.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.