After losing in the quarterfinal round twice in the last three years, Evanston’s girls basketball team didn’t stumble this time. at the Montini Holiday Tournament.
Instead, the Wildkits turned in their most impressive offensive performance of the season and punched a ticket to the tournament semifinals with a 67-58 triumph over a Bolingbrook team that features three Division I college recruits.
Coach Brittanny Johnson’s squad will face host Montini in an 8:15 p.m. semifinal on Saturday, with Lake Forest and Benet Academy also meeting for the right to advance to the championship contest on Monday.
Clearing the quarterfinal hurdle was a major accomplishment for the program in Johnson’s mind. The Kits haven’t exactly put their best foot forward at the Christmas tournament and Santa Claus has consistently dumped a lump of coal in the coach’s stocking all 3 years she’s taken a team to the state’s toughest girls tournament.
This time, it’s different.
“I was so frustrated when we lost in this round again last year (to Nazareth Academy) because we’d always get to this round and lose,” said Johnson. “I even asked them, why do we even come here? It wasn’t that I didn’t think we belonged (with the elite teams in the field), but it was about our mindset and our mentality. It was like we were not prepared to play against good teams
“I’m so proud of the way we played tonight and now we’re 3-0 in big games, against state-ranked and nationally-ranked teams. I’m proud of all our seniors and I felt they all really stepped up tonight. This is a really good feeling, and now I know we’re headed in the right direction.”
Fans who stuck around for the final game of the day were treated to a rare offensive explosion, with a total of 9 players reaching double figures and highlight-film plays were too numerous to count. Bolingbrook provided dazzling mid-range shooting that is rare in the girls game, and Evanston countered with penetration from guards Kayla Henning and Rashele Olantunbosun, plus deadly 3-point shooting that finally broke the Raiders’ backs.
“That was either really good offense, or really bad defense,” said Johnson. It took us a whole half to figure out we could beat them to the basket, but when we did, I though Kayla and Z did a great job. I don’t think we were disciplined enough defensively for a large part of the game, but we did get some stops when we needed them.
“Individually, Bolingbrook is very, very good. We definitely had to work together on defense as a team. I was watching from the bench and we’d feel like we made a good defensive play, and they’d knock down a crazy shot. And they kept doing it, so I guess that’s who they are!”
Evanston placed 5 players in double figures for the first time this season. Jayla Turchin showed the way with 15 points and 11 rebounds, but got plenty of help from Henning (14 points), Lola Lesmond (14 points), Olantunbosun (10 points) and Ambrea Gentle (10 points, 13 rebounds).
Bolingbrook’s Kennedi Perkins, a sophomore, led all scorers with 19 points and Division I prospects Treasure Thompson (LSU), Jayden Marable (Northern Illinois) and Danyel Middleton (Marquette) combined for 36 points but couldn’t prevent their record from dipping to 8-5 on the season.
The Raiders played at a methodical pace and were more than efficient offensively in the first half, shooting 13-of-25 (52 percent) from the floor. That efficiency dropped off when they had to play from behind in the second half, shooting only 33 percent (12-of-35).
Still, the winners needed a 6-0 run to close out the first half — on buckets by reserves Jayiona Cobbs and Dayjah Chmielewski, plus two Henning free throws — to take a 35-28 lead at the intermission.
Evanston led just 52-47 at the start of the fourth quarter, but Lesmond buried back-to-back 3-point attempts to cap an 11-2 burst that finally proved too much for the Raiders to overcome.
“I think they got tired in the second half, and we’re a second half team,” Johnson added. “There was so much offensive firepower on the court that . . . it was like playing against us.”