When the members of the Evanston girls basketball team and the coaches talked about goals in the pre-season, winning the Central Suburban League South division championship again wasn’t even on the team’s radar.
That’s what makes winning so sweet --- when it’s not expected.
The Wildkits stymied Niles West 50-26 Saturday afternoon at Beardsley Gym and finished in a first-place tie with New Trier in the CSL South race, both with 8-2 records.
Delayed by one day due to a winter snowstorm, Coach Brittanny Johnson’s team returned to action with an emphatic defensive statement and left no shot unchallenged while turning the tables on a team they lost to earlier this season.
Now 19-8 overall, the Kit girls finished 8-2 in league play and delivered an encore to the title won by last year’s senior dominated squad. Niles West mustered a TOTAL of five field goals in the final three quarters of Saturday’s blowout win by the hosts.
“That had to be our best defensive game of the year,” said Johnson, whose team has won 5 in a row (and 8 of their last 9) entering postseason play. “They were ready to go today and you could tell winning the conference meant a lot to them. They showed a lot of pride and didn’t let Niles West get wide open 3s today.
“We’ve had moments this year when we were bad on defense, but when the moments have been good, that’s when we’ve knocked off some of the top ranked teams in the state. That’s where our biggest improvement has been as a team. After we lost to Proviso East, we spent the majority of our time in practice working on our defense.
“We really didn’t talk about winning conference before the season. Our initial goal was just to have a winning record in the conference. But after we beat New Trier and won at Glenbrook South, they started to think that we had a real shot at it. It’s something the girls wanted to do, to show that we’re for real.”
Saturday’s regular-season finale sent 4 seniors (Amaiya Johnson, TaMia Banks, Nadia Thorman-McKey, Maddie Carey) out on a winning note in their final home appearance. Kayla Henning’s 10 points topped the winners, who also got 9 points and 10 rebounds from Ambrea Gentle; 8 points apiece from Banks and SyAnn Holmes; and 6 points and 8 rebounds from Johnson.
Niles West connected on just 8-of-35 field goal attempts, and three of those baskets came in the fourth quarter with the game well out of reach.
“When we started the season, we didn’t know what would happen at the end,” said Amaiya Johnson, no relation to her head coach. “I didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t expect to win conference. This is really surreal.
“After we beat New Trier for the first time we thought OK, it’s possible, because our history is not too good against them. That’s when we knew we had a shot. Today, with the conference title on the line, we just gave it all that we could.”
Johnson’s emergence in the backcourt helped solidify the lineup after the Kits only won 8 of their first 13 games. She landed a starting job midway through the season and the 5-foot-6 senior kept it with her rebounding and defensive prowess.
“Once I had that starter’s spot, I just couldn’t give it up,” added the senior guard, who was credited with 4 assists Saturday. “I had to keep playing the best I could play. Usually I’m pretty sporadic, but I gained a lot of control the more I played and I worked on defending and helping out a lot in practice.”
ETHS outscored Niles West 10-1 in the second quarter, opened up a 23-12 advantage at the intermission and kept the defensive hammer down after that.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.