The fact that Evanston’s girls basketball team was only voted a No. 6 seed for the upcoming Maine East Sectional tournament represented either a lack of respect for the Wildkits, or a lack of knowledge by the voters.
Either way, the Kits continued to take down the teams ranked ahead of them Wednesday night at Beardsley Gym.
Two free throws by Delaney Brooks with 26 seconds remaining sealed a 44-39 non-conference victory over No. 4 tournament seed Trinity and boosted the Wildkits to 18-8 on the season. Coach Brittanny Johnson’s squad has lost to the top two seeds --- Maine West and Proviso East --- but owns a combined 4-0 record against New Trier, Loyola Academy and Trinity, three other teams seeded ahead of them.
Johnson said Wednesday that she believes voters don’t realize that most of Evanston’s losses came before Christmas, and that she herself missed a half dozen games to help care for her dying mother.
“After the year we had last year, I think other people just assumed we’d be in a rebuilding mode this year,” said the second-year head coach after the Wildkits stretched their winning string to four in a row. “I didn’t think so, and I’ve said all season that we’d be at our best in January. I think we were, and right now we’re right where we need to be as a team.
“It is a lack of respect, I think. But I also think we’re better when we’re hunting --- and not when we’re the hunted. This is a young team and anything I can use to motivate a young kid helps. And New Trier and Loyola and Trinity did have better records than we do.”
Evanston had to grind out a win over the visiting Blazers, now 18-7 overall, and overcame 35 percent shooting from the field and 9 missed free throws in 16 chances. But Brooks converted a pair of bonus free throws at the end and the Kits held Trinity scoreless for the final 98 seconds of the contest.
Brooks, a non-starter, rarely gets to the charity stripe but has closed out wins in other games at the free throw line and has become someone the Kits can count on in the clutch. The junior guard came off the bench to score 8 points Wednesday, same as Ambrea Gentle and Kayla Henning. TaMia Banks paced the winners with 12.
“This was one of those games late in the season where you don’t want to show too much (to future opponents and scouts), and we were lucky enough to get it done tonight,” Johnson said. “These were two really stubborn teams going after each other and it was boring to watch, because we really couldn’t score in the first half. And we missed all of those free throws, and that was important because we had a chance to extend our lead in the first half. You always want to make sure you don’t leave points out there (with misses).
“Delaney has done it before for us at the end of the game and we feel really confident with the ball in her hands. Those two free throws were huge because that meant Trinity had to start throwing up 3-pointers.”
The game featured four ties and 12 lead changes, after ETHS broke out of the starting gate with a 7-0 lead. But the hosts couldn’t crack Trinity’s 2-3 zone and only sank 16-of-46 field goal attempts overall.
A 3-point play by Banks at the 4 minute, 32 second mark of the fourth quarter gave the winners some breathing room at 40-35, and that’s when the Kits decided to go to a spread offense to force the Blazers out of the zone. That strategy paid off when Amaiya Johnson penetrated into the lane and scored on a short jumper over 6-foot-2 Alex Fanning. It was Johnson’s only bucket of the game and pushed the lead to 42-37.
Trinity answered on a layup by Lauren Lee, who missed the ensuing free throw with 1:38 to play. The losers didn’t score again.
Evanston closes out the regular season at home Friday night against Niles West, attempting to earn a tie for the Central Suburban League South division championship. The Kits are tied with New Trier, both with 7-2 records.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.