Defense steps up, sends Kit girls to sectional finals

Evanston girls basketball coach Brittanny Johnson used the word “horrible” to describe the type of defense played by the Wildkits at the start of the 2018-19 season.

But postseason play is all about “what have you done for me lately?”

The Wildkits stymied second-seeded Loyola Academy 48-35 with their best defensive effort of the season Monday night in the semifinals of the Class 4A Evanston Sectional tournament and punched a ticket to the Sweet 16.

Evanston (24-7) will play unbeaten and top-ranked Maine West in Thursday’s 7 p.m. sectional championship game at Beardsley Gymnasium. The Warriors, who beat the Kits twice during the regular season, dumped Glenbrook South 60-46 in Monday’s other semi and improved to 31-0 on the year.

Suffocating team defense that held the Ramblers (24-8) to 26 percent shooting from the floor delighted Johnson, as her team avenged a 48-45 loss to Loyola back in December.

“We followed the game plan to perfection and we really gave Loyola problems tonight,” said Johnson after the Wildkits held the losers scoreless for 9 straight minutes, overlapping the second and third quarters. “Wow, that was fun to watch!

“Leading up to the Maine South game (regional finals) I think they changed their mindset on defense. They thought about it more in terms of 1-on-1 defense, but now they’re playing legit team defense. Our goal now is not to give the other team easy shots, and the last two games we’ve done a good job of that. I think we’re peaking at the right time.

“We’re not a one-dimensional team and we can win in various ways. Tonight we showed we have the capability to be a great halfcourt defensive team.”

Loyola converted 13-of-50 field goal attempts and sank just a couple of 3-point baskets in 15 tries. Their last lead of the night came at 17-14 in the second quarter, and that’s when that 9-minute drought began. The Wildkits held Loyola’s two leading scorers on the season, Julia Martinez and Celia Satter, to a combined 19 points. Satter didn’t score a field goal until the final minute, and Martinez led all scorers with 16 points but only scored two buckets in the last three quarters.

Jayla Turchin paced the No. 3 seeded host team with 12 points and 8 rebounds. Ambrea Gentle, who was sidelined with a broken hand the first time the two neighborhood rivals met, added 10 points and 8 boards and Tyler Mayne contributed 10 points and 7 rebounds.

Evanston’s game plan found senior SyAnn Holmes in a defensive stopper role most of the contest against Satter, who missed her first 10 field goal attempts. And the winners were able to contain Martinez for the first time in three years after she burst out of the starting gate with 9 points in the first quarter.

“We changed the way we defended Martinez so she couldn’t get to the basket at will,” Johnson noted. “We stepped into the gaps and we didn’t let her get to the basket.

“And SyAnn did an amazing job on Satter, a Division I player who’s an incredible scorer. She literally didn’t let Satter do what she wanted to do. It was great to see a senior step up and be great in big moments like that.”

“In the playoffs, every game is win or go home, and everyone was really focused on defense tonight,” said Holmes, the only senior starter for ETHS. “I think as a team we’re just talking more about what’s coming next. We go over what the player we’re guarding is going to do, and then we’ll talk and adjust and read off of each other.

“Tonight if I got stuck on defense a couple of times, Kayla (Henning) helped me out, and there were times when I helped Kayla out, too. I’m a little surprised we played so well because we’ve had trouble with them in the past. But we knew what we had to do to win, and we did it. We’ve come too far as a team to lose now.”

Leading 26-17 at halftime, Evanston pushed the lead  to double digits before settling for a 37-25 edge entering the final quarter. Six straight points by Holmes (9 points, 4 rebounds, 1 blocked shot) midway through the period helped seal the victory.

Now it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire against a Maine West squad that has been atop the state rankings all season. Johnson believes that the team’s recent progress on the defensive end, inspired by the success of the ETHS boys program headed by Mike Ellis, can make a difference the third time around.

“I feel lucky to be here at Evanston and to be able to watch Coach Ellis’ teams play,” said Johnson of the mutual admiration between the girls and boys teams. “We’ve even stolen an out-of-bounds play from them. I think our girls learned something from watching the boys and the run they made last year (3rd in State). The boys came together and had success, and the girls know if they do the same thing, they can have that kind of run, too.

“I feel good about this team. Maine West is really, really good, and at this stage of the season it’s just about who goes out and makes plays.”

“At this point, anything can happen,” added Holmes. “You can’t count anybody out.”

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