Trailing Loyola Academy 28-24 late in the third quarter Thursday night, Evanston’s girls were poised to break the Ramblers’ hearts again.
But the Wildkits could never get over the hump and suffered a season-ending 47-31 loss to Loyola in the Class 4A Lane Tech regional championship basketball game.
Evanston’s comeback bid absorbed a severe jolt when junior forward SyAnn Holmes cracked her head on the gym floor on a drive to the basket, and the 6th seeded Wildkits couldn’t find the range on offense after that and mustered just 7 points in the final 10 and a half minutes of the game.
No. 3 seed Loyola will take a 24-5 record into Monday’s Maine East Sectional semifinal against Maine South. Evanston exited postseason play with a final won-loss mark of 20-9 after rallying from a 17-point deficit to beat the Ramblers during the regular season.
Another comeback seemed possible until the Kits connected on just 6-of-37 field goal attempts overall in the second half. Kayla Henning scored a team-high 15 points, but the other four starters combined for just 13 points.
Holmes’ injury on a drive to the basket — with no foul called on the play — came during a sequence where both teams struggled to score after a 3-point play by Evanston sophomore Ambrea Gentle with 2 minutes, 40 seconds left in the third quarter cut the deficit to 28-24.
After a 5-minute delay while the trainers attended to Holmes and gave her the concussion test, Rambler guard Juliana Martinez (game-high 26 points) tacked on three more points and that was as close as Evanston could get for the remainder of the game.
Holmes, ironically, had enjoyed the most success guarding Martinez 1-on-1 among the trio of defenders who tried. The Rambler junior connected on 8-of-21 shots and also sank 10-of-14 free throw attempts on the night.
ETHS head coach Brittanny Johnson called Holmes’ loss the final tough blow in a season in which the Kits endured plenty of adversity, including the passing of the coach’s mother.
“I think if we got the lead, we would have been fine. When SyAnn went down, that was the killer for us. That was the turning point,” Johnson said. “It was scary for our kids and the entire building heard her hit her head. It was a 100 percent dirty play and they didn’t even call a foul. She was pulled down, clear as day. It was definitely a dirty play.
“Just like it was last year and the first time we played them this year, our game plan was to let Martinez drive like that. But tonight the officials allowed HER to create the contact and they still kept sending her to the free throw line. There was no reason we couldn’t get it done against her with our game plan, but we couldn’t even touch her without getting a foul.
“Loyola played better — that’s all it was and that’s the way it usually is when you end your season. We’re not that great an offensive team and that’s something we’ve been able to hide most of the year, but they had a good scouting report on us.”
Evanston’s 20-win season included a tie for the Central Suburban League South division championship and the Wildkits were one of the best teams in the state of Illinois over the second half of the season, just as Johnson predicted they would be.
With only one starter — TaMia Banks — back from one of the best teams in school history, the Wildkits defied the odds and laid the foundation for future success for a team that will graduate two senior starters, Banks and Amaiya Johnson, plus reserves Nadia Thorman-McKey and Maddie Carey.
“Nobody thought this team would win 20 games. Nobody thought this team would win the conference, and nobody thought this team would beat the teams that we beat,” Johnson said. “I know those seniors are in there hurting now because we didn’t play our best game.
“But what sucks for me is that it’s been such an emotional year and I won’t get to coach them again. This team faced more adversity than any team in the state, with injuries and my Mom’s passing, but while that was happening these seniors emerged as unbelievable leaders because they’re unbelievable people.
“All that adversity brought us together in a way that was really kinda neat. The way this team supported me through everything this year, I could coach another 20 years and this would still be my favorite team because of that.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.