In her second season as the girls head basketball coach at Evanston, Brittanny Johnson doesn’t mind admitting that she’s never really sure which Wildkit team will show up on any given night.
The one that showed up Saturday afternoon at Loyola Academy in Wilmette pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the ETHS program.
Down but never out after trailing 18-3 in the first quarter, the Wildkits scratched and fought their way to a 47-43 victory against a stunned Rambler squad that figures to land one of the top four sectional tournament seeds in Class 4A in another month.
Sophomore center Ambrea Gentle muscled her way to a career-high 21 points and the visitors converted an equally stunning 11-of-14 free throws in the final quarter to complete the comeback. Evanston’s effort came less than 24 hours after one of the team’s worst showings of the season, a 53-43 loss at Niles West in Central Suburban League South division play.
Trailing 30-14 at halftime, the Kits limited the losers to just 5 field goals over the entire second half and outscored Loyola 33-13 in front of a shocked Rambler crowd. Loyola fell to 14-3 on the season — including one out-of-state loss — while Evanston moved to 12-7 with the signature win.
“I never know which team is going to show up, and that’s not always a bad thing. We have a bunch of fighters here,” Johnson said. “When we came into the lockerroom at halftime, I asked them what we needed to do and the answer was simple — play harder.
“We had some kids really step up in big moments and I don’t think Loyola expected that. I think they thought the game was over, and we wore them down today. We are a young team and sometimes it takes us awhile to settle into a game, but once we do, we can do some great things.
“We have to be a team with a defensive mindset and little by little they’re starting to understand that. We can be really good when we’re a defense-minded team.”
Evanston’s slow start included 1-of-14 field goal shooting in the first quarter, and it didn’t get much better in the second quarter. Only the imposing post presence of the 6-foot-2 Gentle kept the blowout margin from becoming worse, as she scored 6 of her team’s 14 points.
The Ramblers never did find a defender to contain Gentle, who converted 6-of-12 field goal attempts, sank 7-of-10 at the free throw line and grabbed 12 rebounds. SyAnn Holmes scored 11 points and Kayla Henning added 8 for the winners, while guard Juliana Martinez paced Loyola with 23.
Evanston still trailed by 14 points with 3 minutes left in the third quarter, but put together a 6-0 run to finally bring the deficit under double digits at 35-27 entering the fourth stanza.
A 3-point play by Martinez with 6:24 left turned out to be the last score for the hosts over a 4-minute span. ETHS went on a 12-0 run, taking the lead at 40-38 when Henning spun into the lane and dropped in a short jumper. A putback by Gentle put the visitors ahead for good at 42-40 with 1:46 remaining, and the Kits sealed the deal by sinking 5-of-6 at the charity stripe from that point on.
“We’re going to keep feeding the ball to Ambrea, even if it’s not working, because she’s such a matchup problem for any team we face,” Johnson said. “I thought she did a fantastic job of imposing her will on Loyola today. They couldn’t stop her.
“Our free throw shooting has been a problem for us all season and they’ve really been working hard on that. I’m really proud of the way they stepped up today.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.