Santa dropped not one, but two lumps of coal into Brittanny Johnson’s Christmas stocking over the past week.
A broken hand that will keep leading scorer and rebounder Ambrea Gentle out of the lineup for 4-6 weeks was the first lump, and a 48-45 loss to Loyola Academy Friday night at Beardsley Gym would qualify as another lump because there’s not a team the Evanston head coach would rather beat than the Ramblers.
But Friday’s last-second loss featured more positives than negatives to wrap in a bright red ribbon for Johnson as the Wildkit girls slipped to 11-3 on the season and wrapped up the 2018 portion of the schedule.
A late steal and a layup by Loyola’s Addison Bendery when the Wildkits were maneuvering for a possible game-winning shot will likely give the Ramblers the edge over ETHS when coaches hold their sectional tournament seed meeting in another two months. Loyola improved to 11-3 on the year, same as the losers.
Yet a gritty defensive effort and the play of seldom-used senior Amena Alexander off the bench were two steps forward for the Wildkits, who have had to dramatically change their offensive approach and their player rotation with the loss of Gentle.
Evanston actually trailed by 10 points (41-31) entering the fourth quarter against the Ramblers and clawed back to a 44-43 lead on two free throws by Jayla Turchin with 57 seconds remaining in regulation. After a 3-point basket by Loyola’s Celia Satter, the hosts answered with an Alexander free throw with 17 seconds left on the clock.
Alexander missed the second attempt, but SyAnn Holmes claimed the rebound to give the Kits one last chance. That’s when Bendery stole the win, as a buzzer shot by Turchin from 30 feet bounced off the back of the rim.
“That was a tough one to lose,” Johnson said. “We can’t allow ourselves to get down like that against a disciplined team like Loyola, and then have to fight our way back.
“We’re in a transition period right now without Ambrea, but I saw more positives tonight, knowing that we have to depend on people who haven’t played much so far now. It was really good to see some of the others step up. We didn’t come out of halftime ready to play, but I’m really proud of how we fought back. We’re learning how to play in our ‘new norm’ now.”
Turchin (17 points, 11 rebounds) was the only Evanston player to reach double figures on a night where the hosts shot just 30 percent (14-of-47) from the field in their own gym. Alexander was next for the Wildkits with 9 points, a season high for someone who is the epitome of the term “seldom-used senior.”
The Wildkits wouldn’t have had a chance without her Friday night. She pestered Loyola star Julia Martinez into two crucial turnovers and 1-of-4 shooting in the fourth quarter when Johnson decided to switch defensive assignments from Kayla Henning to Alexander.
Evanston’s defense limited Martinez to 4-of-16 shooting from the floor, most of those attempts coming in 1-on-1 situations against Henning and Alexander after Tyler Mayne picked up some early fouls.
Why did Johnson turn to Alexander for that defensive task?
“I knew at some point we were going to have to pressure Martinez more, and I wasn’t sure if Kayla could keep up with her,” Johnson acknowledged. “The other girls we had guarding her before were being careful, but Amena bent her knees, looked her in the eye and said bring it on. That was an incredible thing to watch. I could see something in Amena’s eyes and I felt like that would be our best matchup.
“Amena literally gave it everything she had out there tonight. Her energy and her effort changed the intensity of the game. She guarded their best player and she hit some huge shots down the stretch for us tonight. I have to find more minutes for her.”
Satter, one of those 6-footers who prefers not to come near the paint, tossed in three straight 3-point baskets in the third period to help Loyola open up a 41-31 advantage. She led the winners with 14 points and helped them outscore ETHS 19-9 in the third period.