Six inches separated the Evanston girls basketball team from scoring the biggest upset victory in program history and a season-ending defeat Thursday night.
But Leighah-Amori Wool’s last-second 3-point field goal attempt bounced off the rim and that allowed top-seeded New Trier to escape with a 41-39 triumph in the championship game of the Class 4A Glenbrook South Sectional tournament.
A little more lift on that last shot from the right corner and the Wildkit season wouldn’t have ended with a final record of 19-12.
But there was no sense in counting the “what ifs” after a gallant performance from a team that counted six sophomores among its top seven players this season and gained the maturity necessary to compete with the state’s elite teams by season’s end.
“It just shows you how much we’ve improved,” said ETHS head coach Elliot Whitefield, whose team lost to the Trevians (26-1) by 19 and 25 points in two regular season meetings. “When you can go toe-to-toe with the third-ranked team in the state, it says you can play with anybody.
“We did make too many mistakes tonight. But these kids played hard, and that’s what makes it tough, because they gave it everything they had. I thought New Trier gave us some opportunities at the end, because they couldn’t finish. They tightened up because they’re not used to playing in tight games. They probably came in thinking we’d fold early and they’d have all night to celebrate. Instead, they had to wait until the last second.”
The decision by New Trier coach Teri Rodgers to go to a 4-corner offense with her team up 41-37 and 2 minutes, 50 seconds left in regulation almost blew up in the Trevians’ faces. New Trier missed three bonus free throws in the final 41 seconds and the last miss, by Jackie Welch, gave the Wildkits one last chance at the upset.
Following a foul, Evanston inbounded from the sideline with 6 seconds to play. And the ball wound up in the hands of their most reliable scorer, Wool, who netted 12 points go with Savannah Norfleet’s team-high 13 points.
“We were going to run a flare screen for Savannah or Leighah,” said Whitefield. “But New Trier bodied up on Leighah and didn’t let her get where we needed her to get.”
“Hanan (Richmond) bobbled the ball and Leah (Robinson) got the ball to me while she was falling out of bounds,” recalled Wool of the season’s last seconds. “I got hit on the hand (by New Trier defender Kathryn Pedi) but it still looked like it was going in. It just fell short.
“I felt a little bit rushed on the shot, but I know my role on this team, and I’m not afraid to take the game-winning shot. And I don’t see this as the end of the world, even though I really hate losing to New Trier. We proved to ourselves that we’ll come out and compete and give you a game.”
One of the youngest teams in program history didn’t need to learn how to win at the varsity level, as Evanston’s 19 wins proved. Instead, they had to learn a more subtle skill — learning how to compete at the varsity level.
“Last year half of our sophomores were freshmen on the sophomore team, and they won a bunch of games,” Wool pointed out. “They were used to winning. As a team, we needed to learn how to compete, and I think we did that. So regardless of our record, the season was a success because of that.
“And next year will be even better.”
Playing without fear, the Kits attacked New Trier’s 1-3-1 zone defense as Wool, Richmond and Norfleet combined for 25 points to force a 27-27 halftime deadlock. But the losers mustered only 4 field goals in the entire second half, two of them by the only senior starter, Adriana Carter (5 points).
Three players reached double figures for New Trier. 6-foot-3 junior center Jeannie Boehm scored 13 of her total 16 points in the first quarter, along with 12 points for Haley Greer and 10 by Pedi.
“I thought our kids executed extremely well,” said Whitefield. “We weren’t going to double-team Boehm because we weren’t going to give their shooters any wide-open 3s. But in the third quarter we stopped moving a little on offense, and we weren’t cutting as hard.”
New Trier’s biggest lead came in the third quarter when buckets by Pedi and Boehm and a Boehm free throw stretched the advantage to 34-29. But Carter, a senior guard who missed the last two postseason games due to illness, fired in a 3-point basket to keep it a one-possession game at 35-32 after three quarters.
“They played hard together, and they really competed well toward the end of the season,” Whitefield said of his squad. “Now this team needs to take the next step and keep maturing on and off the court.”