Evanston’s signature moment so far in girls basketball was a full year in the making.
Promises made, promises kept.
Living up to a promise they made to their head coach after faltering (again) last year at the Montini Holiday Tournament, the Wildkit girls captured the tournament crown with a 55-37 thrashing of Lake Forest in the title game Monday night.
Seniors Kayla Henning and Ambrea Gentle combined for 32 points to offset a 23-point effort by tournament MVP Halle Douglass of Lake Forest, and first-team all-tournament selection Jayla Turchin added 8 points and 6 rebounds in a dominant performance by the champs.
Head coach Brittanny Johnson described the first place trophy, and the poster board of the tourney bracket that are the spoils that belong to the victors, as two of the best holiday presents she’s ever received .
“I’m just so proud of this team!” Johnson exclaimed. “We had to beat 3 quality teams in a row, so this was not easy. We just kept fighting and fighting until we came through.
“We’ve never done well here before, but the seniors promised me last year that if we came back they’d do better, and that meant winning a championship. Promises made, promises kept! I trusted and believed in them all along.
“Defensively, we really stuck to the game plan. Halle Douglass is a great, great player and we just wanted to make sure she worked for everything she got against us tonight.”
“Last year was a little discouraging for us, because we probably should’ve won this,” said Turchin. “Me and Kayla really wanted to win this one for Coach. It’s just awesome that we could accomplish this.”
Henning helped the Wildkits turn the game into a blowout in the third quarter, when she fired in 8 of her team-high 17 points. She also grabbed 4 rebounds and collected 4 assists.
“Last year I came and watched the championship game,” said Henning, “and when I saw how hyped up it was, I knew we had to be part of it. I thought we had the team that could do it, so promises made, promises kept.
“This feels really good. Tonight I was in my (own) head in the first half and I made myself more tired. Coach yelled at me, and then I was able to push through. To finish this off and finally get to where we wanted to be is a really good sign, I think, for the rest of the year.
“I think we’ve played some of our best basketball in spurts, this year, but once we really put it together for four quarters, it’ll be crazy!”
The 6-foot-3 Douglass, the all-time leading scorer in program history and a Wisconsin recruit, is the granddaughter of former Chicago Bears quarterback Bobby Douglass. Her stat line showed 23 points on 9-of-22 shooting from the floor, plus 8 rebounds and 3 blocked shots. But she also turned the ball over 7 times, pestered by ETHS defenders Henning, Rashele Olantunbosun and Ariel Logan, and got almost no help from her Scout teammates.
The rest of Lake Forest’s players shot just 6-of-23 against Evanston’s man-to-man defense, which also forced 14 turnovers.
Lake Forest’s last lead came at 12-11 early in the second period, and from there the Kits outscored the Scouts (13-3) by a 17-6 margin. Turchin’s driving layup beat the clock to make it 28-18 at halftime.
Evanston pushed the lead to 45-24 after three periods as Gentle (15 points, 10 rebounds) added 7 points, 5 at the free throw line, to go with Henning’s outburst.
Evanston’s balance should propel the Kits to a No. 1 ranking in the next Class 4A state poll and confounded the participating head coaches at the tournament when it came to voting for the MVP, first team and second team honors.
Turchin scored 42 points in 4 games and was clearly deserving of her first team selection. Both Gentle and Henning were named to the 5-player second team.
“I think all 5 of our starters deserved to be all-tournament,” said the ETHS coach. “They’re all equally tough. I had other coaches telling me they didn’t know who our best player was, and that was great to hear.”
Turchin’s all-around game clearly made an impression on opponents. She continued her comeback from minor knee surgery just a month before the season opened and is playing some of the best basketball of her career.
“Jayla does so much for us, with her help side defense, her rebounding and the way she facilitates our offense with her passing to people in spots where they can score,” Johnson said. “She’s the ultimate team player who just wants to win. She’ll come in the lockeroom with zero points, and happy because we won. And when she has confidence in herself, like she does now, she’s truly unstoppable.”
“It’s been a hard road, coming back from the injury, but I knew I just had to trust the process and keep working. The injury set me back a lot, and I had to keep my head up. I feel like there’s still a little way for me to go, but I’m definitely getting there,” Turchin said.
The Wildkits will travel to New Orleans to make the first national tournament appearance in program history later this week. They’ll meet Lee Magnet, the defending Class 2A state champion in Louisiana, at 5 p.m. on Thursday.
Evanston will take a 12-1 record into that tournament. The Illinois High School Association ruled previously that Evanston must forfeit a victory over Chicago Simeon after senior Kaylen Hall was declared ineligible earlier in December.
Hall and her mother moved to Morton Grove prior to the start of the school year, but believed she was still eligible to play at ETHS. Under IHSA rules, players can change residences but still play out their senior years at the same high school. But in Hall’s case, it marked her second move in four years and that’s where the problem arose. She played at Mather in the city of Chicago as a freshman, so her next move made her ineligible under IHSA rules.
Hall only played in 3 games for Evanston this season and the Simeon victory is the only one that will be wiped off the books.
“We’re still hopeful that the IHSA will restore Kaylen’s eligibility. She has moved back to an apartment in our district and I believe she should be eligible soon,” said Evanston Athletic Director Chris Livatino.