Evanston’s girls almost shocked the high school basketball world Thursday night at Beardsley Gymnasium.
But the Wildkits’ upset bid died at the free throw line.
Unbeaten and top-ranked Maine West, pushed to the limit by a gutty Evanston team, took advantage of 5 missed free throws in the overtime period for a 55-50 triumph in the championship game of the Class 4A Evanston Sectional tournament.
Two free throws by Angela Dugalic with 16 seconds left in OT secured the win for the Warriors, now 32-0, and sent them to the Palatine Super-Sectional.
Evanston fell to a final mark of 24-8 after converting just 6-of-16 attempts at the free throw line, including a 2-of-7 performance in overtime. The host team missed 4 straight charity tries while trailing by just two points in the final 30 seconds of the season.
The fact that the losers — who bowed twice to West during the regular season by 24 and 14 points — made so many plays on offense and on defense paled in comparison to the hurt that remained after those missed opportunities.
“The pride will come tomorrow, but it’s disappointing right now because the kids really believed we’d win tonight,” said a somber ETHS head coach, Brittanny Johnson. “All season we’ve proved we can battle back and this is just a tough loss.
“Obviously free throw shooting has been a huge issue for us this season. We’ve pretty much struggled with it all year, and that’s why we lost tonight. We had the opportunities to win that game tonight. I felt like Maine West hadn’t seen the real Evanston yet (due to injuries that left the Kits short-handed for the first two meetings), and I really feel for the kids because they really believed they were gonna win this game.
“I never felt like we were out of any game this season and I really would’ve liked to continue this run we’re on. This was a really fun team to watch because of the way we battled every game.”
Junior guard Kayla Henning fired in 9 points in the third quarter to keep the Wildkits within striking distance and was one of three ETHS players in double figures. Jayla Turchin topped the Kits with 13 points and 13 rebounds, while Henning added 12 points and Tyler Mayne netted 11 before fouling out in overtime.
Maine West star Rachel Kent scored a team-high 15 points, including the game-tying bucket with 63 seconds remaining in regulation. Dugalic amassed 11 points and 18 rebounds and Vanessa Reyes tallied 14 points for the winners.
“The heart of this team is immeasurable,” said Henning. “All week we prepared not just to be in the game with Maine West, but to beat them. At one point in the season our free throw shooting had gotten a little better, but tonight I think the pressure got to us. Knowing what was on the line, we had the ability to make them, but we didn’t. At the end of the day we’ve got to make those free throws.”
The Warriors, who had only one other win by fewer than double digits during a dominant perfect season, led 52-50 when reserve Jocelyn Jacob blew a layup attempt on an inbounds play and fouled Ariel Logan in frustration. But Logan missed both tries in the double bonus situation with 28 seconds left in the extra period, and Turchin also missed a pair after grabbing an offensive rebound seconds later.
Evanston never scored again.
The Wildkits trailed by 8 points (34-26) to start the fourth quarter in a defensive duel that found neither squad able to maintain any rhythm. But ETHS fought back with what counted as a “run” with a 6-0 spurt that featured baskets by Tyler Mayne, senior SyAnn Holmes and Turchin to cut the deficit to 34-32 early in the quarter.
The Kits finally seized the lead at 40-38 on a triple by Henning, and the lead see-sawed back and forth until Henning connected on another 3 at the 2:28 mark for a 45-43 Evanston advantage.
Both Mayne and Henning missed bonus free throws down the stretch, and that allowed Kent to produce a clutch score of her own with 1:03 to play. She knocked down a 13-foot jump shot to tie the score.
Evanston held for one last shot — and never got one off as the Warriors’ defense smothered Mayne on a futile last-second drive down the middle.
“The ball was supposed to go to either me or Jayla (Turchin) on that last possession,” Henning explained. “I was attacking from the left side and I was supposed to dump the ball down to her, but Maine West packed the lane. I should have trusted myself to take that last shot. That’s an opportunity I should have taken advantage of, and that’s one regret that I have for tonight.”
Johnson wasn’t about to point a finger anywhere.
“Kayla kept us in it with her shooting, and everybody made plays for us down the stretch,” she said of the fourth quarter comeback. “We just needed to make a few more.
“I know how badly the seniors wanted to leave a legacy here. I hurt for them, especially SyAnn (Holmes, the team’s only senior starter). She gave it everything she had tonight.”
Holmes, Delaney Brooks, Amena Alexander, Najidah Laude and Elizabeth Ayeni will depart after graduation this spring, but the foundation for a big 2019-20 season has already been built in Johnson’s third year at the helm of the program.
“What we did tonight shows the sky’s the limit for this team next year,” added Henning. “I just wish we could have done it this year for the seniors, because they deserved it.”
“This was a tough season because of all the injuries we had,” said the head coach. “We won the conference, we won 24 games and we took the No. 1 team in the State to overtime tonight. It’s been a great season.”