One opposing coach told Evanston’s Brittanny Johnson that he didn’t even have Jayla Turchin’s name on a scouting report.

That’s how much things changed for the 5-foot-10 ETHS junior following a breakout performance at last week’s Montini Holiday Tournament. Now there will be a target on her back and foes will focus on stopping Turchin, who earned second team all-tournament honors after scoring 75 points in 4 games and leading Evanston to a 7th place finish overall at the state’s toughest girls holiday tourney.

Turchin’s breakout was especially important for a Wildkit squad that had to change its approach now that center Ambrea Gentle is sidelined with a broken hand. Johnson shifted from an “inside-outside” philosophy on offense to an up-tempo, pressing style that was a staple in the program in the past.

That new style produced a 2-2 finish at the tournament, as the Wildkits defeated Lake Zurich (62-55) and Geneva (61-36) with losses to powerhouses Nazareth Academy (74-66) and Benet Academy (69-54) sandwiched in between those two triumphs.

Turchin’s ability to take a step forward against some of the toughest competition on the ETHS schedule was really no surprise to Johnson. But Turchin hasn’t always met the coach’s expectations since transferring in to the program following her freshman year at Niles West.

“If you asked any of our players, I’m sure they’d tell you that I’m tougher on Jayla than on anyone else,” Johnson said after the Wildkits improved to 12-5 on the season. “We’ve always seen the talent in her and now she’s more accountable for the things she can control, like being in better condition and her effort.

“I think the light bulb has clicked on for her now. She’s settled in and she understands what our expectations are. She played incredible the entire tournament at Montini. She can’t be stopped offensively — she’s that good! She can shoot the 3, she has a great mid-range game, she’s crafty going to the basket and she’s an unbelievable passer, too.”

Turchin turned in a 23 point, 12 rebound, 5 steal performance against Lake Zurich the day after Christmas, then tallied 20 (along with teammate Kayla Henning) in a second-round loss to eventual tournament champ Nazareth that one website called the best game of the year in girls basketball.

The junior standout led the Kits with 17 points and 7 rebounds against Benet and finished up with 15 points and 12 boards in Saturday’s victory over Geneva in the 7th place game.

“I thought the final scores really didn’t indicate how well we played against those top teams,” the coach said. “We lost that tough one to Naz and then 12 hours later we had to come back and play a really good Benet team.

“I thought we competed well against Naz (tied 40-40 at halftime in a shootout) and we were only down 3 with about 30 seconds left. We just didn’t make the plays we needed to make down the stretch. But I think that game was the turning point to our season. We came into the tournament wanting to prove that we belonged, and we fought hard. We were able to walk away able to show people what Evanston basketball is all about.”

Johnson also saw progress in Henning’s return from knee surgery, although there is a chance that another injury might impact the Kits moving forward. Senior guard Delaney Brooks had to leave the final game against Geneva after scoring 12 points in the first half and will likely have to consult a doctor regarding issues with her knee.

Freshman Lola Lesmond, who played in France last year, could turn out to be the “next gal up” if Brooks is on the sidelines for an extended stretch. The 6-footer has made strides adjusting to a new country and a new program and Johnson is excited about her potential.

“She’s played at a couple of different levels now (varsity and junior varsity) and once she saw what it was like to play against freshmen and sophomores, compared to juniors and seniors, I think she got a boost in her confidence,” Johnson said. “Some younger kids don’t have to make an adjustment at first, they just play, but those are rare and special kids. We need a third scorer to stabilize our offense until Ambrea comes back, and Lola did hit some big shots for us against both Geneva and Benet. She’s a very good player.”

Evanston will host Niles West Friday as the Central Suburban League South division schedule resumes, and will take part in a shootout event Saturday at 2 p.m. at Benet Academy in Lisle. The Wildkits will be matched against Madison Memorial of Wisconsin in that game.

“We have not had one game where the entire team has been healthy yet this year, so the fact that we’re 12-5 tells me there could be something there,” said the coach. “Only time will tell, but if we get everyone healthy by February 1st, we can really finish strong.”      

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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