Since Blake Peters’ stunning game-winning shot went viral last month on the Internet, there’s no way any basketball player wearing an Evanston uniform can top that effort.
But Kayla Henning hit two of the biggest shots of the season Tuesday night for the Wildkit girls.
Henning beat the buzzer twice — at the end of the second quarter and again at the end of the third quarter — and scored a season-high 22 points to lift the Wildkits over pesky Oak Park-River Forest 57-44 in the semifinals of the Class 4A Lane Tech Regional tournament.
Evanston defeated the Huskies for the second time this season and will take a 20-8 record into Thursday’s championship game against Loyola Academy at 7 p.m. The Ramblers hammered the host team 63-39 in Tuesday’s other semifinal.
Henning poured in all 22 points in the final three periods as the Kits rallied from a double-digit deficit in the first half and won for the 10th time in their last 11 games. Delaney Brooks added 11 points off the bench and Ambrea Gentle contributed 11 points and 14 rebounds for the winners.
Henning’s jumper from the top of the key at the halftime buzzer closed out a 14-3 surge late in the first half and sent ETHS into the lockerroom with a 25-23 advantage. She beat the clock again at the end of the third period, this time connecting from almost the exact same spot and concluding a 10-5 run for a 39-30 lead.
Oak Park, which only lost to the Wildkits by 6 during the regular season matchup, never got closer than 7 points the rest of the way.
“That’s my favorite play — we call it 15 — and we run it a lot at the end of a quarter,” Henning said. “I really feel comfortable coming off a ball screen on that particular play.”
Like every high school point guard in the state, the ETHS sophomore has to find an offensive balance between creating shots for her teammates and not forgetting her own offense at the same time. Henning’s growth at the position has shown better decision making every game, according to Evanston head coach Brittanny Johnson.
Still, there are times Johnson wishes she’d shoot more.
“Kayla hit two big shots tonight, and that’s great because she was struggling at the start,” Johnson pointed out. “Once she settled in, she became almost as unguardable as No. 33 for Oak Park (cat-quick Ahsha Spencer, who scored a game-high 17 points for the Huskies).
“We’ve been waiting for Kayla to take over a game like that, so it was really good to see. I’d love for her to step up and be more aggressive, but she just won’t force shots until she finds her rhythm. I just have to accept that as a coach, and hope that the older she gets, the more she’ll understand that you can’t wait to get warmed up.”
Told that she hadn’t attempted a single shot in the first quarter of Tuesday’s playoff game, Henning cringed.
“Sometimes I’m just not aggressive enough,” she sighed. “That’s something that I need to work on. When I’m aggressive right from the start, that’s when my game really gets going. No shots in the first quarter? That’s not good.
“Finding the right balance is hard when you’re a point guard. Sometimes I get so involved just running the plays that I don’t look for a shot. The coaches told me I had to attack more tonight, and once I started doing that, I either got fouled going to the basket or got some good shots.”
Henning and Brooks combined for 15 points in the second quarter, enough to put the Kits ahead to stay despite the presence of Oak Park’s Spencer. The 5-foot-8 junior, who scored 17 points the first time the two teams met, got three different defenders in foul trouble even though she only shot 5-of-16 from the field overall.
“We’re so young that a lot of our players haven’t played in a playoff atmosphere like this,” said the second-year Evanston coach. “Our goal was just to get the game tied by halftime (after a slow start).
“That No. 33 (Spencer) is one of the better players that we’ve seen all season. She’s a good player, with a power driving game that’s similar to LeBron James. We had a lot of trouble guarding her.”
Thursday’s regional title game against No. 3 sectional seed Loyola offers the Ramblers a chance for payback after they blew a big lead and lost to the Kits 47-43 at Loyola. Johnson knows how difficult the task looming for her team will be.
“I think we match up pretty well with them, even though they’re one of the best teams in the state,” the coach said. “Obviously, they’ll be playing with a chip on their shoulders after losing to us before. The team that makes the least amount of mistakes will probably win.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.