No fear. No panic. That’s the approach that the Evanston girls basketball team has turned into a winning formula after surviving a rough stretch of losses during the first half of the season.
Now the Wildkits are the team that nobody wants to play, and Kayla Henning is the guard nobody can guard man-to-man.
The Wildkit sophomore took over in the last 4 minutes after Evanston watched an early lead slip away, and rallied the Kits to a 52-45 victory at New Trier Friday night.
The unflappable Henning — you can’t tell what the score is from the look on her face or that of her teammates — scored 8 of her game-high 14 points in the fourth quarter and helped Evanston complete a regular-season sweep of the Trevians for the second straight year. Ambrea Gentle added 13 points and 13 rebounds and Delaney Brooks came off the bench to fire in 13 points for the winners, now 13-7 overall and 4-2 in Central Suburban League South division play.
New Trier fell to 14-5 and 4-2, respectively, despite Cate Murdock’s 14 points.
In front of a bigger crowd than usual — the game was the first game of a girls-boys varsity doubleheader — the visitors never lost their composure, not even when the hosts took a 39-36 lead with 6 minutes, 51 seconds left in the final quarter.
Henning’s ability to beat defenders off the dribble again and again led the Kits to a closing surge of 16-6. Evanston broke the 41-41 tie on a Henning drive, and after a steal by TaMia Banks, Brooks drilled a 3-point shot with 2:50 to play that all but put the game out of reach.
“That was a great team win,” said ETHS head coach Brittanny Johnson. “I think it’s a 3-team race now in the CSL (Maine South leads New Trier and Evanston by a game in the standings) and it’ll come right down to the end. There’s so much more parity and it’s going to be an exciting finish. This year I think anybody can beat anybody — but I’ll take my fighters over anyone else.
“A lot of things didn’t go right tonight, but we figured it out. We’re becoming fighters out there and that’s exciting for a coach to see. Even early on in the season I felt like we had some fighters here, but we didn’t show it. Now that we’ve found out that’s our identity, our response to adversity has been so much better. We learned from those moments that lead to losses in those situations early.”
Henning sank just 6-of-15 field goal attempts, but added 6 rebounds and helped the Kits ease to a 25-18 halftime advantage. The Trevians, however, kept the outcome in doubt by scoring 7 points in the last 1:03 of the third period, before Gentle countered with a pair of free throws to maintain the slim 36-35 edge.
New Trier had to abandon its’ 2-3 zone when the Kits regained the lead, and that played right into Henning’s hands.
“Kayla’s just starting to come into her own,” Johnson said. “And other coaches are starting to recognize that. That’s why we’re seeing so many zones, because I don’t know if anyone can match up with her man-to-man. I see every day how much hard work she puts into her game, and to see her rewarded like this for that hard work is special.
“She made some huge plays for us tonight. Whenever we need a basket, or someone to make a play, Kayla’s the one to do it. That’s not the kind of pressure I want to put on a sophomore — that’s a difficult spot for her to be in — but she’s really developing into the kind of player we thought she would be.
“I thought Ambrea was awesome for us on the glass tonight, too. She’s really becoming a matchup problem for other teams. She still found a way to make a difference even though New Trier double-teamed her and really tried to close down the paint. She dominated everywhere it mattered — boxing out, rebounding, playing help defense — except for points.
“I’m still learning how big a rivalry this is with New Trier and it was an atmosphere that was almost like a (state) playoff game. It was so exciting to see the students come out for one of our games like that. I understand now what it means to the girls when they play New Trier, and how big it is in the community when we beat them.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.