Ambrea Gentle’s at her best shooting layups.
But the Evanston senior center is also in her comfort zone when she’s 15 feet from the basket.
The 6-foot-3 Gentle converted 7-of-10 free throw attempts — including 4-of-6 with the game on the line — and lifted the Wildkits to a 65-57 victory over Beaver Dam (Wis.) in two overtimes with a career-high 29 points at the Chicagoland Invitational Showcase event at Fremd High School in Palatine.
Evanston improved to 5-0 with the wild win over Beaver Dam, the three-time defending Class 2A state champions from Wisconsin. The losers (3-1) staged a furious comeback in the fourth quarter, forcing 11 Wildkit turnovers to come all the way back from an 11-point deficit.
Gentle’s touch, however, was too much for the visitors from Wisconsin to overcome.
“I think I have a few more gray hairs now,” said Evanston coach Brittanny Johnson. “Last year’s game against Maine West (overtime loss in the sectional) was wild, but this one was close to that.
“I told the girls that whoever had the most heart was going to win this game. We made tons of mistakes at the end (of regulation) and literally almost gave the game away. We felt this would be a great early test for us and I’m glad that we made mistakes and were still able to win the game. Beaver Dam is a fantastic team. They play hard, they play disciplined and they play the right way. We could take a page out of their book.”
The Golden Beavers (that’s really their nickname) also played man-to-man defense almost the entire contest and Gentle’s career best game was the payoff for Evanston.
“Last night GBN (Glenbrook North) played 2 girls in front of her and 1 behind her, and we couldn’t get the ball in to her,” Johnson pointed out. “I’ve never seen anyone play 1-on-1 against Amber that much. This is obviously the best game I’ve ever seen Amber play.
“She’s always been a good free throw shooter. She has a nice, soft touch. After that Maine West game we’ve decided to use her as our safety net in those (late game) situations. She’s big and strong, and she did a good job of making herself available for passes and made some huge free throws.”
“It was nice to finally get all those touches inside,” said Gentle, who shot 11-of-18 from the floor and also grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds on her way to being recognized by shootout officials as “Player of the Game” for ETHS. “After the first half (13 points) I thought they’d start sending some double teams at me, but they didn’t change it up at all. I just wanted to make some points and help my team win.
“We struggled as a team last year with our free throws in big games. Now we take time to work on them every day in practice. I shot way more this summer, too. Now I feel like I’m one of the people who’ll make them when someone needs to step up.
“Winning this game is definitely a big thing to us. All games matter because this will help us take steps forward for the rest of the season.”
Gentle sank 3 straight free throws to break a 55-55 deadlock early in the second OT period, and a drive and a layup by Kayla Henning (6 points) with 1 minute, 34 seconds remaining put the game out of reach after Beaver Dam star Maty Wilke (26 points) fouled out.
Wilke, a junior guard who is a Division I prospect, tossed in four 3-point baskets in the first half before Henning climbed inside her jersey on defense in the second half and made things tougher for the sharpshooter.
That effort, and the team defensive effort the Kits turned in after surrendering 20 points in the first quarter, took a physical toll on the winners and was one reason they faltered with a big lead in the fourth quarter.
“Kayla had to play 94 feet of basketball for what, 50 minutes?” asked Johnson. “She showed incredible heart. Her defense and Ambrea’s inside play were the difference in the game. We trusted her to play lockdown defense and she did a really good job of wearing that girl (Wilke) down.
“After we figured out who their 3-point shooters were, we did a good job of closing out on their shots. But this is the first time we been in a situation to get the ball in against pressure and the initial shock of it got to us. Their pressure kept turning us over because we just haven’t seen much of it.”
Jayla Turchin added 9 points for the Wildkits, who built a 44-33 lead after three quarters. But ETHS turned the ball over twice in the last 15 seconds, and Wilke netted a free throw and a layup to pull the Golden Beavers into a 50-all tie.
In the first OT, a free throw by junior Rashele Olantunbosun with 29 seconds remaining gave the Kits a 55-53 edge, but Natalie Jens countered with a drive down the middle to keep Wisconsin’s hopes alive.