Evanston’s girls basketball team never led once in the first three quarters against Loyola Academy in the Class 4A regional tournament championship game at Maine West Thursday night.
That’s when the Wildkit sophomores decided to play like seniors.
Showing a sense of urgency not noticeable in most of their regular season games, the ETHS girls forced a tie on a buzzer-beating basket by Leighah-Amori Wool, then owned the overtime period and outlasted the Ramblers 47-41.
Evanston, the No. 3 sectional seed, will take an 18-11 won-loss record into Monday’s sectional semifinal game against host Glenbrook South at 7:30 p.m.
Trailing 30-27 after three periods, the Kits refused to lose, just like a senior-dominated squad would. But Evanston’s third straight regional championship was achieved by a squad that had 5 sophomores on the floor every minute of the championship contest.
“I’m so happy for these seniors, these juniors and these young girls,” said Evanston coach Elliot Whitefield. “It’s a big step for this team to take.
“After the Maine South game we understood that we needed more of an effort to get where we wanted to be at the end of the year. I think they were a little surprised when they found out they were the No. 3 seed in the sectional, because that meant they were favored to win a regional. This is big for all of them, and hopefully success will build on success.”
Savannah Norfleet paced the winners with 20 points and Wool added 17 after missing 6 of her first 7 shots from the field.
Loyola was led by point guard Tyra Mills with 18 points. But it was Mills’ missed free throw with 6 seconds remaining that gave the Wildkits the chance to keep their season alive.
Krystal Forrester grabbed the defensive rebound and got the ball to Wool, who dashed down the middle of the floor and banked in a shot in the lane as the buzzer sounded.
Wool’s attempt to put the Kits ahead on their previous possession ended in a turnover as the ball slipped out of her hands on a contested drive to the hoop.
“The ball slipped and I got hit in the face, too,” Wool recalled. “But we should never have been in that predicament, where we needed a game-tying shot. I really thought we were gonna go home. When I got the pass from Krystal I knew I had to do it for our seniors and for our team. I thought it wasn’t gonna count, though. I was scared and I was happy, all at once.
“The stakes are a lot higher now than in some of the regular season games we played. If you lose, you go home (eliminated). We weren’t going to end our season tonight.”
Norfleet, who repeatedly got to the basket against Loyola’s man-to-man defense, scored a 3-point play early in the overtime period to start a 9-0 run for ETHS. The winners converted 8-of-10 at the free throw line to seal their second win over the Ramblers (16-12) this season.
The Kits sank just 6-of-25 field goal attempts in the first half, including an 0-for-10 effort from 3-point range. But they only trailed 17-13 at halftime, and Norfleet’s 7 third period points kept the game within reach.