Kayla Henning picked a perfect night for her career game. But the best is yet to come for the Evanston freshman guard.
With the rest of her teammates struggling on offense, Henning came off the bench and scored a career-high 24 points Friday night as the Wildkit girls basketball team tripped Maine South 51-39 and remained undefeated in Central Suburban League South division play.
Henning fueled an ETHS attack that was missing leading scorer Leighah-Amori Wool (sprained ankle) for the second week in a row and helped the Kits end a brief two-game losing skid. Evanston improved to 17-3 overall and 6-0 in league play as Henning hit 9-o-f-13 shots from the floor and added 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals for the winners.
The freshman’s ability to penetrate the lane and score against South’s 2-3 zone defense gave the hosts just the spark they needed, and showcased the all-around game that Henning brings to the table. She connected on 3-of-4 attempts from 3-point range, too. She also scored 21 points in a blowout victory over Niles North last month, but her contribution Friday night at Beardsley Gym was much more significant as she tallied almost half of Evanston’s points.
“Kayla had a great week of practice, and she was really something to watch tonight,” said Evanston head coach Brittanny Johnson. “We’ve been telling her in practice that we want her to be aggressive and play smart, and once she learns to use her skill and her ability, she’ll be a very scary player.
“Nobody on this team out-works her. I knew she’d have a better second half of the season just because of all the work she’s already put in. She has so much potential. I challenge her every day in practice and I think she’s getting used to that. What do I like most about her? I like the fact that she’ll be good because she really wants to be the best player to ever play here.”
The Wildkits trailed 6-4 in a lackluster first quarter for both teams before Henning pulled off a 1-on-1 move for a 3-point play in the lane with two seconds left in the period. She poured in 7 more points in the second quarter — on a fast-break, another 1-on-1 sojourn into the lane, and a 3-point shot — as ETHS built a 22-14 lead against the cold-shooting Hawks.
Henning’s 3-point bucket pushed the lead to 36-23 near the end of the third period, and Maine South never got closer than 10 points the rest of the way.
Allysah Boothe added 7 points and Leah Robinson notched 6 points and 9 rebounds for the Wildkits. South shot just 8-of-32 from the field and also missed 12 free throw attempts.
Henning did get her feet wet with the varsity players this summer and said Friday night that she’s finally starting to reach a comfort level as a 13-year-old playing with, and against, 17 and 18-year-olds.
“I was scared early in the year — I knew I had the skills to be on the varsity but I didn’t know if I had the mental toughness it takes — but now I’m playing my game,” she said. “The biggest adjustment is playing against all of these older girls, because things I could do in middle school I can’t do here. My floaters (shots in the lane) worked in middle school, but I can’t do it as often now because the IQ level is higher and they’ll take charges if you try that too many times.
“My teammates have all really welcomed me and it’s so validating to hear ‘keep shooting, keep driving’ and that’s what I’ve heard from them right from the start of the season. I’ve heard it often but I was still a little timid out there. I tend to over-think things sometimes, and I know now I just have to play my game.
“The coaches have really been working with me about reading defenses and how to pick my lane like I was able to do tonight. And going up against the best players in the state in our gym every day in practice has been very helpful, too.”
Friday’s victory got the Kits back on the winning track after they stumbled against Loyola last week and Johnson was pleased to see Henning pick up her game when the team needed her most.
“We hit a rough patch there for awhile, and I hate to lose,” Johnson said. “But when you have a No. 3 ranking that means there’s a target on your back, and we took some tough shots from some other teams. I hope the lessons we learned can make us a better team now.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.