SyAnn Holmes spent the final seconds before the start of the second half of Wednesday’s basketball game at Niles West with junior varsity coach Carlton Rosemond in her ear.
And the Evanston senior took Rosemond’s advice to heart and led the Wildkits to their third straight Central Suburban League South division championship with a 58-38 conquest of the Wolves in the conference finale in Skokie.
Holmes only contributed one rebound and a blocked shot in the first half, which ended with ETHS clinging to just an 18-16 lead. She flipped the switch and in the third period alone chalked up 3 steals, 3 rebounds, 4 points and another blocked shot as the visitors pulled away to a 37-27 advantage and never looked back.
Three other Wildkits --- Jayla Turchin with 11 points and 11 rebounds, Ambrea Gentle with 11 points and 6 rebounds, and Tyler Mayne with 10 points --- put up better numbers but it was Holmes who made the difference for Evanston, now 20-7 overall.
At least head coach Brittanny Johnson thought so.
“We didn’t play a good first half, but I knew we could turn it around in the second half,” said the Evanston coach, who has guided the Kits to outright league crowns in 2017 and 2019 and earned a share of the title with New Trier in 2018. “SyAnn was the one who sparked our run in the second half. She was all over the court and she really stepped up and played like a senior.
“SyAnn has struggled with injuries all year and she’s sacrificed her game for the good of our team. It’s been a tough season for her, so it was really awesome to see her have those great moments tonight.”
“Coach Rosemond told me at halftime that I had to wake up, that I had to get more involved in the game,” Holmes said. “He said I had to get out there, be a threat on offense and play defense like I know I can. And he was definitely right. I was just out there (on the court) in the first half and I owed it to my teammates to pick it up. We fed off each other’s energy in the second half, and it feels amazing to win this (championship) again in my senior year.”
Gentle, in just her second game back after suffering a broken hand six weeks ago, showed her competitive rust in the first half when she missed 4 layups. But the 6-foot-2 junior stashed in 10 points in the third quarter and played approximately 15 minutes before fouling out with 3 minutes, 48 seconds left in the game.
In all, 11 different players scored for the winners and ETHS held Niles West (16-11) to just 25 percent shooting (11-of-44) from the floor.
Evanston concludes the regular season at home Saturday with a 2 p.m. game versus Chicago Kenwood. Seeded 3rd in the Evanston Sectional complex, the Kits open regional play at Maine South next Tuesday against the Leyden-Lake View winner at 6 p.m.
Evanston’s three-peat was a unique challenge because both Gentle and senior guard Delaney Brooks were on the sidelines for an extended period with injuries this year, and a one-point loss to New Trier in December may have been the low point for Johnson’s squad.
But perhaps the deepest team in school history responded like champions do, completing a 9-1 league season even though every opponent in the South division chalked up at least 15 victories this winter. Not many past champs wearing the Orange and Blue have faced that kind of competition every week of the league season.
“We believed in each other, and with Ambrea and Delaney out for awhile, we knew we had to push each other to step up,” Holmes added. “After that New Trier game (46-45 loss) I knew we had to win every other game (to repeat). We just had to give it everything we had and play hard every single game. Other teams always start to dig down deep when they play Evanston and we always have that target on our backs.”
“After that loss to New Trier I know everyone was really down,” said Johnson. “But I credit both SyAnn and Kayla (junior guard Kayla Henning) because they let everyone know it’s not over yet, that they still had a ton of games left. You have to credit both of them for stepping up and leading us in big moments.
“I don’t think people on the outside looking in understand our struggles this year, how hard we had to work just to get people healthy. But our standard is set at winning conference --- that’s always our main goal every season. Winning this year is special because this was the toughest one. The first year we breezed in the conference games, and last year was a shocker after we had graduated so many great players.
“This year, with the injuries and such great parity in the conference, it’s really special for us to have dropped only that one game.”