Dreams die hard at the end of a basketball season.
For Evanston’s girls — who dreamed of a trip to the Final Four for the first time in school history — the dream came to a shocking end in a flurry of missed field goal attempts Thursday night in the championship game of the Illinois High School Association Class 4A Niles West Sectional tournament.
Upstart Maine West, a 14-point loser to the Wildkits during the regular season, turned the tables emphatically and sent the senior-dominated ETHS squad to the sidelines with a 50-31 loss. The Warriors (28-3) will advance to next Monday’s super-sectional at Addison Trail while ETHS finished with a final mark of 27-4 under first-year head coach Brittanny Johnson.
The losers wore out the rims at Niles West, shooting just 17 percent (8-of-46) from the field and missing all 15 of their field goal tries in the decisive third quarter.
“We really picked the worst time to shoot our worst of the season,” said Johnson after the Kits were limited to a season-low 31 points. “This is 100 percent unexpected. I really expected us to shoot a lot better than this, but it was hard to watch all of those shots rim in and out. It was just unbelievable.
“We played good defense in the first half and we were fine (trailing 16-15 at the intermission). But we just couldn’t make a shot after that. Their defense forced us out of our comfort zone, so it was somewhat about them — but mostly about us. We were out there really trying to force the issue. We usually score off our defense and tonight we weren’t able to do that at all. I’ve never seen my team miss that many shots, but Maine West shot the ball better, defended better, and they deserved to win.”
Maine West snapped Evanston’s 11-game winning string, fueled the entire season to dedicating a successful year to their late head coach, Derril Kipp, who passed away this summer. The Warriors were led by junior Alisa Fallon (17 points) and sophomore Rachel Kent (10).
Evanston’s all-time leading scorer, senior Leighah-Amori Wool, dropped in 20 points (on 5-of-17 shooting) but the rest of the Kits combined for a total of 11 points on 3-of-29 marksmanship.
“When I was a player I never ended my season this early,” said Johnson, a former Fenwick star. “For me it stings in a couple of ways, because I played AAU ball for four years for coach Kipp. To see what Maine West accomplished playing for him this season is really something. He’d be so proud of their effort and their heart and the way they hustled against us tonight. They’re a dangerous team.”
Johnson sat Wool down early in the second quarter when the senior standout picked up her second foul on a charge, and that extended stretch with her on the bench didn’t help ETHS’ offensive production, either.
“We should still have been able to extend the lead with Leighah on the bench,” the coach declared. “With the way the game was being called so tight, I’d do it again.
“This game will hurt for awhile, especially the seniors. My only regret is that I didn’t get a chance to coach them longer. I was lucky to inherit that senior class because those guys are awesome!”
Starters Wool, Allysah Boothe , Brianna Miller and Krystal Forrester will graduate this spring and another senior, Leah Robinson, was a profile in courage by coming back to play extended minutes (2 points, 4 rebounds) despite suffering a fractured thumb in a practice session this week.
“As seniors we’ve been together a really, really long time. We even started our own feeder team when we were younger,” Forrester said after contributing 3 points and 6 rebounds. “For it to be over tonight is really bittersweet. These girls are all special to me.
“When we first came out tonight we had butterflies, and then we didn’t turn it around when we knew we should have. We had a rough start to that second half (trailing 27-14 after a scoreless third period). Our offense usually starts with our defense, and our defensive intensity was not there tonight.
“I think it was really amazing to go 27-4 in Coach Johnson’s first year here. I love Coach Johnson. We learned five new plays on the very first day we met her. She put her foot down right at the start — get on the train or get run over, she said — and she was straight to business from the first time we met her.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.