After suffering a knee injury the summer after her sophomore basketball season, Kayla Henning knew she might not be the same player again.
Instead, she blossomed into a smarter player, especially at the defensive end.
Henning’s growth from an on-the-ball defender to an off-the-ball defender was apparent again Tuesday night at Beardsley Gymnasium, as the senior guard led Evanston to a 57-24 running clock victory over Niles West in the Central Suburban League South division opener for both teams.
Evanston yielded just 2 field goals in the first half and Henning collected a team-high 15 points, 6 steals and 5 assists as the Wildkits improved to 3-0 on the season. Lola Lesmond added 12 points and Ambrea Gentle contributed 10 points and 8 rebounds against the winless Wolves (0-4).
The hosts forced 24 turnovers and Henning’s stats came in only about two quarters of actual court time.
Not many high school players are capable of changing their games the way Henning has adapted to the fact that she might have lost a step when it comes to her quickness. And ETHS head coach Brittanny Johnson, who went through knee issues herself when she was a player, appreciates Henning’s metamorphosis.
“I think Kayla became more of a student of the game that summer she was hurt, and now she watches more film than I do,” Johnson laughed. “I think that’s helped her see the game in a clearer lens than she saw it before.
“Kayla is like a sponge and she’ll soak up any information you give her. You just need good technique and an understanding of the game to be a good defensive player. She watches a ton of film to help her understand the strengths and tendencies of the opposing players she’s going up against, and she’s really bought into what we’re trying to do on defense as a team. She’s really turned herself into a good off-the-ball defender.”
“Before I got hurt, I relied on my quickness because I was quick enough to get there even if I didn’t anticipate the play,” Henning pointed out. “Now it’s not that I’m trying to get steals, I just want to be in the right spot and not get beat.”
Henning’s progress included her summer stint with the Mac Irvin Fire AAU program. She flipped the script from the stereotype that says defense is played with a small d — not a capital D — during the AAU season.
“I wasn’t happy with the minutes I was getting, but Coach Johnson called me often and really helped me. She said play lockdown defense and you’ll get more minutes, and that’s just what happened,” Henning added. “Defense did get more important to me because we had a lot of scorers on that team and I was able to bring it on defense.
“Our team (Evanston) can score with anybody in the state — we can outscore anybody in the state — but losing our defensive stopper SyAnn Holmes (2019 graduate) was a blow. I know coach is definitely looking for a defensive stopper to take her place and she really wants everyone to play team defense. She’s definitely stressing that this year.”
Tuesday’s triumph also showcased some of Lesmond’s improvement at the defensive end. She’s a step quicker after working hard in the off-season and the 6-foot sophomore helped contain Niles West point guard Albiona Ahmeti and totaled 4 steals of her own.
“It’s really important for us to have a lot of players who can guard multiple positions,” Johnson explained. “This is the third game in a row that we’ve really stuck to our game plan and not allowed the other team’s top player to score. Right now it’s all about getting better defensively as a team. We want to get to the point where we were at the end of last year. We can still do much better.”