Evanston’s reputation as a second half team is still intact.
The Wildkit girls advanced to the finals of the Montini Holiday Tournament with a narrow 53-52 triumph over the host team Saturday night in a battle of unbeatens that wasn’t for the faint of heart.
What did coach Brittanny Johnson’s team have to overcome? Only 17 misses on their first 18 shots of the game, a 5-point deficit at halftime, and foul trouble for both Ambrea Gentle and Jayla Turchin.
Saddled with four personal fouls, Gentle came back off the bench to pour in 10 of her game-high 22 points in the last 4 minutes and never did foul out. She scored what turned out to be the winning basket on a left-handed layup with 23 seconds remaining.
Montini’s sophomore point guard, Sophia Sullivan, had a chance to at least tie the game but missed a bonus free throw with 2 seconds left on the clock to seal the ETHS win.
Evanston, now 12-0, will meet upstart Lake Forest in Monday’s championship game at 8:15 p.m. The Scouts used a last-second basket to topple the team ranked No. 1 in the state, Benet Academy, by a 45-44 margin in Saturday’s other semifinal.
“I’m speechless! It’s just a great feeling, and I’m really, really happy for our guys. We deserve this!” exclaimed ETHS head coach Brittanny Johnson. “We really have been a second half team this year, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. We didn’t follow our game plan whatsoever in the first half tonight — we know we have to play inside-outside basketball — but I love being a second half team.
“I’ll definitely take one half of great basketball like tonight.”
A young Montini team that features 8 sophomores and 3 freshmen on its varsity roster traded leads with the experienced Kits a total of 8 times in a furious 4th quarter. The Lady Broncos didn’t’ have a post defender who could deal with Gentle — except when the 6-foot-3 senior was on the bench.
She picked up her fourth foul (and there was a discrepancy about who should have been tagged with her 3rd foul) with 3 minutes, 41 seconds remaining in the third quarter after Evanston had taken only its second lead of the game at 29-28.
Johnson rolled the dice and put Gentle back in when Turchin’s fourth foul at the 5:41 mark of the fourth quarter put the outcome in jeopardy.
Gentle finished with 22 points and 8 rebounds and sophomore Lola Lesmond added 11 points for the winners. Sullivan netted 10 points for Montini.
Gentle was actually smacked in the face on her game-winning shot, which came moments after a driving layup by Montini’s Taylor Charles gave the hosts their last lead at 52-51. But Gentle said she’s used to playing through hard contact and rarely comes out second best in a physical matchup.
“It was a hard game,” said the senior standout. “But I knew we’d come back if we kept pushing hard in that third quarter. When I got back in the game in the fourth quarter, I knew I had to keep my composure, play defense with my feet and not reach in or foul.
“I’ve been through games like this my whole life. I know I have to finish my layups even when I’m not getting the calls. When I did get open, I made sure I played physical. Those fouls were in the back of my mind the whole time, though.
“A lot of teams don’t seem to think we’re as good as our record. It was nice to come out tonight and prove we CAN play.”
Montini couldn’t capitalize on Evanston’s poor marksmanship in the first half, leading just 22-17 at the halftime break even though the visitors shot a paltry 4-of-27 from the field in the first 16 minutes.
Lesmond caught fire in the third quarter, firing in 8 points including back-to-back 3-point shots to bring Evanston back on the scoreboard.
“I don’t think we’ve been playing bad in the first half of most of the games, although today we were probably a little closer than we should’ve been,” said Johnson. “But this year, with this team, I never feel we’re out of it. I had so much trust and belief that they’d pull it out. We made the plays we needed to make in the second half.”