NEW ORLEANS — The No. 1 girls basketball team in the state of Illinois did some damage here last week against the best competition the state of Louisiana could offer.
Evanston won 2 of 3 games at the National Prep Classic tournament, its only loss coming against the eventual tournament champion, and pushed its season record to 14-2 overall. The Wildkits defeated Lee Magnet 74-59, lost to LaGrange 55-46, and on Saturday bounced back to overpower Doyle 69-50.
The Kits proved in the first trip to an out-of-state tournament in program history that they could beat the best when given the opportunity. Evanston’s opponents had a combined 3 losses before tourney play began.
Head coach Brittanny Johnson’s vow to reward the current senior class for their hard work and commitment since she took over the ETHS program 4 years ago by securing a berth in the 16-team Platinum field should pay dividends in the second half of the season. The Wildkits were exposed to different styles of play — not to mention “different” officiating — and only a defensive breakdown in the second round versus LaGrange on Friday kept the Illinois visitors from a potential trip to the title game.
All-tournament selection Jayla Turchin scored 38 points in the 3 games, which came at the end of a grueling stretch of 7 games in 10 days for the weary Evanstonians.
“I feel really good about where we are as a team right now,” said Johnson. “What an honor it was for us to play in a tournament like this one. I knew it would be really tough to play a schedule like this (back-to-back holiday tournaments) and for us to win 6 out of 7 is really amazing. This team never quits, no matter what, and I think we’ll grow from this experience.
“Louisiana high school basketball is incredible. The players are so gritty, so tough, so athletic and I think the first 2 games here were a shock to our system.”
Foul trouble, and just plain fatigue, prompted Johnson to use 11 of her 12 healthy players in the first half of Saturday’s matchup with once-beaten Doyle. Somehow the Kits mustered enough energy for a 34-30 halftime lead, then outscored Doyle 18-8 in the third quarter to break the game open.
Senior guard Ariel Logan reined in Doyle’s leading scorer, Mississippi State recruit Presleigh Scott, who fired in 13 points in the first half but was held to 3 field goals in the second half.
Ambrea Gentle (15 points, 8 rebounds), Lola Lesmond (14 points, 5 rebounds) and Kayla Henning (13 points) shared the offensive spotlight for the winners, but Logan’s performance earned the headlines as far as the ETHS head coach was concerned.
Logan is still on the comeback trail physically after medical issues that were hard to diagnose had Logan’s doctors predicting that she might not be able to play at all this season.
“I don’t think she was cleared to play until just a couple of days before our tryouts,” Johnson recalled. “I know it’s been frustrating for her, but Ari has always remained positive. It was great to see her play extended minutes and show she can be a defensive stopper, because I know that’s something we need. She was our best player yesterday (against LaGrange) in a tough game, too.”
Evanston and Doyle combined for 51 turnovers in that game, as the officiating crew took the definition of traveling to an entirely new level.
The Wildkits began the New Year with a bang, outscoring Louisiana defending Division II state champion Lee Magnet with a 24-point splurge in the fourth quarter of that 74-59 triumph in the tourney opener. Rashele Olantunbosun netted 9 of her total 16 points in the last period. Gentle paced the winners with 21 points.
On Friday, however, LaGrange blitzed the Wildkits with 15 unanswered points to open the game. The team from the Lake Charles area of the state built a 24-7 lead after the first quarter.
Evanston closed to within 6 points twice, at 43-37 and 50-44, but could get no closer. Henning drained a 3-point shot with 2:20 remaining, then missed in the lane after a LaGrange turnover and the winners converted 5-of-7 free throw attempts to clinch the victory.
It was Evanston’s first on-court defeat, with the other loss coming via forfeit versus Chicago Simeon.
“That was an alarming first quarter. I just felt like they wanted it more than we did,” Johnson admitted. “I’ve never felt like we didn’t have the opportunity to come back in any game — until today.
“I take responsibility for our start because I didn’t prepare them well enough. We didn’t have the right defensive matchups at the start, so that’s solely on me. But the finish is totally on them. We had opportunities to come back, and we didn’t get the job done.”
Evanston was limited to less than 50 points for the first time this season as only Turchin (16 points) reached double figures. ETHS shot just 5-of-15 from the field in the fourth quarter.
Turchin’s selection to the 6-player all-tournament team was significant because typically only players on teams that advance to the tournament semifinals earn that type of recognition. The 5-foot-11 senior was chosen along with tourney MVP Jeriah Warren of LaGrange, Jerkaila Jordan of runnerup John Curtis, Amoura Graves of Ponchatoula, Jaylyn James of St. Thomas Aquinas, and Scott of Doyle.
“It was a long process coming back from my (knee) injury, but now I’m back,” Turchin proclaimed. “I think I did pretty well when it came to being focused for every game.
“We could’ve hung our heads down (after losing), but we came out with a lot of energy today. It was really important for us to bounce back. I think it was a great experience for us to come here and see different competition, to see how these other teams play. It really prepared us for the rest of the season. When we get back home, we’ll be way better as a team.”
Team captain Henning, who was awarded $1500 toward a college scholarship by tournament officials due to her involvement in the Evanston community, echoed her teammates’ sentiments.
She also noted that with seniors Kaylen Hall and Tyler Mayne both eligible to play at ETHS now, the Wildkits will be stronger and deeper for the second half of their season.
“It was fun for us to come here,” Henning said. “We know every style the teams play in Illinois, but people play a little different here. A lot of these teams are 1-person dominated. One player is their killer, and the other players on the team are OK with (playing like)’that. They just put their heads down, make a basketball move and go to the basket — and I kinda like that.
“It will be so good for us now, having Kaylen and Tyler back. Kaylen has been such a leader for us off the court, even when she wasn’t able to play. And Tyler gives us such heart. I’ve played with her for a long time. She plays hard every possession, she rebounds and she can shoot, too. When we have dead moments as a team, she’s the engine who can start our energy again.”