To prepare the Wildkits for what she hopes will be a run to the Final Four this year, Evanston girls basketball coach Brittanny Johnson purposely back-loaded the schedule with tough teams.

No. 1 ranked Evanston will meet 3 opponents ranked in the top 5 in Illinois in the week leading up to postseason play, and that’s just how Johnson wants it.

Whether or not that strategy falls into the “be careful what you wish for, etc.” category, only time will tell. But the Kits opened that grueling stretch of games with a 77-62 loss at No. 5 Lincoln-Way West Saturday and suffered their first actual in-state loss of the season.

ETHS surrendered a season-high 77 points with a lackluster defensive effort that should grab the attention of everyone — players especially — connected to the program.

Lincoln-Way West employed a basic offensive philosophy — put your head down and drive to the basket — and the Warriors connected on 53 percent of their field goal attempts to improve to 24-2 on the season. Evanston slipped to 21-3 overall. The only other loss to an Illinois school came via forfeit versus Chicago Simeon.

Johnson believes that a little adversity could be better than having a team playing on cruise control entering the Class 4A state tournament series. So the Wildkits will close out the regular season at Fenwick on Tuesday, at Maine South on Friday, against No. 2 ranked Benet Academy at the E-Town Showdown event, and against defending state champion Maine West in the Central Suburban League crossover championship game on February 12 at Beardsley Gym.

“I just don’t think our focus was there today. It was bad. We’ve played against some really good players this year, and Lincoln-Way does have some good players, but I haven’t seen another team just put their heads down and get layups against us like that,” Johnson said.

“I’ve been telling them for awhile now that we have to play better defense and we absolutely didn’t today. We haven’t been in enough tough situations this year where we’ve been down and had to fight our way back, in a tough environment like this one. In years past we haven’t ended the season playing tough teams, and I want them to know exactly where we are, and what we have to work on.”

The visitors fell behind 15-8 in the first quarter and foul trouble limited the production of starters Ambrea Gentle (4 points) and Rashele Olantunbosun (9 points, all in the second half). Evanston trailed 36-25 at halftime, but a rebound basket by Kaylen Hall (10 points, 8 rebounds) kept the Kits alive down 50-41 entering the final period.

But the Warriors pulled away as freshman Ava Gugliuzza — one the West’s aptly-named Splash Sisters — poured in 15 of her game high 23 points in the fourth quarter. The winners also counted 20 points from senior Taylor Gugliuzza and 17 from 6-foot-2 sophomore Brianna Woolridge on their way to their second straight win against ETHS in the home-and-home series.

Evanston was led by Jayla Turchin’s 16 points and 12 rebounds. Kayla Henning notched 11 points.