Evanston girls basketball fans are watching a new and improved version of Leighah-Amori Wool this season, even though she entered her senior year as the leading scorer in school history.
Call the 2016-17 version Wool 2.0 — a stronger player who’s in better shape physically than at any point in her career.
That’s the version teams will have to deal with for the remainder of postseason play after the 6-foot senior muscled her way to 30 points, matching her career high and lifting the Wildkits to a 56-45 victory over Loyola Academy Monday night in the semifinals of the Class 4A Niles West Sectional tournament.
Top-seeded Evanston, now 27-3, will face No. 3 seed Maine West (26-3) in the championship game on Thursday at 7 p.m. after the Warriors eliminated Maine South 44-33 in the other sectional semifinal. Winner of that game will advance to the Addison Trail Super-Sectional.
Only the strong survive in the postseason and Wool dominated the paint against Ramblers, snatching a game-high 13 rebounds to go with her 9-of-16 shooting from the floor. The senior standout missed the earlier matchup between the two teams — a 45-41 Loyola win — with a sprained ankle, and didn’t appreciate pre-game media comments from the Rambler side that she wouldn’t have made THAT much of a difference if she had been able to play.
“Obviously I made a big difference tonight,” said Wool. “That just fueled our tanks and made us go harder when we heard some of those comments. This is my senior year and I didn’t wake up at 6 a.m. and lift weights and do conditioning for nothing. And now I’m not going to say ‘we’re going to try’ to get Downstate. We ARE going Downstate. This is just the beginning.
“I definitely feel like I’m in better shape this year than I was last year. Last year I might have played the same amount of minutes, but I’d get sloppy at the end of games. Now I’m able to stay at the top of my game longer.”
No one enjoys watching Wool at the top of her game more than first-year head coach Brittanny Johnson. Wool did miss 7 free throws — she was 10-for-17 on the night — but Loyola couldn’t cope with her even when the losers could manage to collapse more than one defender on her.
“Leighah is a hard matchup for anyone, and she showed that tonight,” Johnson said. “I think she took it to heart when she heard she wouldn’t make that big a difference. You really don’t need to motivate our seniors, but it added to the fire because they knew they didn’t play their best basketball last time against them.
“That was the best game I’ve seen Leighah play but now she has to top it next game. I think we saw the character of the seniors who lead this team tonight, because every time Loyola made a run at us, we settled in and said let’s make a run of our own.”
Evanston’s rotation was affected by injury again for this matchup, because 6-foot senior Leah Robinson suffered a fractured thumb in practice and didn’t suit up. But sophomore SyAnn Holmes and junior Nadia Thorman-McKey have played significant minutes off the bench and picked up the slack with Robinson sidelined.
“Both girls have played in close games for us before and we feel good about what they can do for us, even though we’ll definitely miss Leah,” the coach said. “I thought Nadia came in and did a good job tonight and her ‘and 1’ (3-point play) was one of the biggest plays in the first quarter.
“Tonight we didn’t press Loyola, not at all, and we still held them well under their average in the first half (leading 27-14). We don’t get enough credit for our half-court defense.”
For the game the Ramblers, now 21-11, shot just 15-of-46 (33 percent) from the field and that stat was boosted by an 8-of-18 showing in the final quarter. Closest Loyola could get in the final period was at 42-32 with 5:05 remaining in the game, but Wool answered with a rebound basket, a drive and a pair of free throws to swing momentum back to the ETHS side.
Krystal Forrester and Briana Miller each netted 7 points in support of Wool. Evanston advanced to the sectional finals for the third time in the past four years, and will be seeking its first sectional crown since 2014.