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Kaylen Hall knew she would have to work hard and wait for her turn to play when she saw the talented post players ahead of her in the Evanston girls basketball program after transferring to ETHS from Mather as a sophomore.
Kaylen’s turn finally came on Jan. 5 at the Chicagoland Invitational Showcase shootout event at Benet Academy in Lisle – and she made the most of it.
The 6-foot junior chalked up career highs in points (9) and rebounds (7) and helped the Wildkits scramble past once-beaten Madison Memorial of Wisconsin by a 56-43 margin.
Kaylen showed that she just might be ready for prime time as a post player as head coach Brittanny Johnson tries to figure out a way to replace the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, Ambrea Gentle, who may not be available because of a broken hand until postseason play starts.
The Wildkits, now 14-5 on the season, have plenty they can accomplish until then and Kaylen could be part of the new “all hands on deck” mentality that Evanston needs to embrace to have a successful second half of the season.
Junior guard Kayla Henning earned game MVP honors for ETHS with a team-best 13 points and Tyler Mayne added 10 points and 8 rebounds, but the MVP could just as easily have been Kaylen.
Stuck at the end of the bench after starting at Mather as a freshman and at ETHS for the junior varsity squad last year, Kaylen continued to work hard to improve her overall game so she would be ready when opportunity knocked.
She got the call in the second quarter Saturday and scored all of her points and grabbed all of her rebounds in the middle two periods. Kaylen helped the Wildkits snatch a huge 47-32 rebounding advantage over the visitors from Wisconsin.
“I try to trust every player we have,” said Coach Johnson, “but the best part of coaching is when you give a kid an opportunity and you see them rise to the occasion. Kaylen is always working hard, trying to get better. We weren’t sure what we had in her because she transferred in, and then she was hurt this summer. She still makes a ton of mistakes, but that doesn’t change her drive or the effort that she puts in.
“Sometimes when you have an injury situation like ours, you just have to go with what feels right, and in the second quarter it felt right to put Kaylen in. Obviously, it paid off for us. We’ve put a big emphasis on rebounding this week and our guards have done a really good job of rebounding, too. So when Ambrea gets back our expectations will be that everyone will rebound.”
“I didn’t expect to get that many minutes today,” Kaylen admitted. “But we know that if one [player] shines, we all shine. We just have to be ready for our opportunity when it comes.
“When I got called up to practice against the varsity players last year I saw that there were a lot of good post players. But I saw that as a good thing, because there were more people there to push me to be the great player that I want to be. We’ve lost two star players now in Ambrea and Delaney [Brooks, with a bone bruise in her leg] and they’re such dominant players that we have some big shoes to fill. We have to go out and represent for them.
“It’s always really tough when I have to go up against Ambrea in practice. She’ll have her good moments, and I’ll have my good moments when we go head to head, but the best thing is the way that we push each other.”
Leading 24-21 at halftime, Evanston did a better job of limiting penetration by Madison’s guards in the second half and opened a 46-32 advantage in the third period after Kayla and Kaylen scored a combined 11 points.
The winners actually extended the lead when both Kayla and Jayla Turchin (3 points, 6 rebounds) went to the bench for a brief rest at the end of the quarter, as Kaylen, Ariel Logan and Rashele Olantunbosun teamed up to tally 6 points in the last 40 seconds.
Evanston missed 7 of 13 free throw attempts in the fourth quarter or the win over the Spartans (10-2) would have been even more one-sided.
“Everybody played well for us today,” Coach Johnson said. “We haven’t been a very good defensive team this year, but in the second half they realized that Madison wasn’t taking any 3-pointers and we showed we could defend in the half-court against a really athletic team. Our new defensive goal is not to give up so many uncontested looks at the basket, and today we didn’t give up on plays.
“We just want to do the things we’re good at – we’re an athletic team with a lot of quick players – and we just want to get things right by February.”