It took members of the Evanston girls basketball team several months to get over the pain of last year’s overtime loss to eventual state champion Maine West in the sectional championship game.
Thursday night in Des Plaines, the Warriors broke their hearts all over again.
In a gritty defensive duel between two of the best teams in the state of Illinois, Maine West held off the Wildkits 43-42 in overtime in the Class 4A Maine West Sectional title game and ended the high school careers of 7 Wildkit seniors.
The pain of this defeat will linger even longer for Kayla Henning, Ambrea Gentle, Jayla Turchin, Kaylen Hall, Dayjah Chmielewski, Tyler Mayne and Ariel Logan because it was the final blow. Evanston finished 24-7 on the season while Maine West will take a 30-3 record into next Monday’s supersectional against Palatine Fremd.
Evanston limited McDonald’s All-American Angela Dugalic to 3-of-17 shooting from the field and had opportunities to win the game twice, at the end of regulation and the end of overtime. Both times the Warriors heavily contested those shots and the efforts by Henning and Turchin didn’t come close to falling.
Turchin was triple-teamed as ETHS ran an out-of-bounds play with 2.1 seconds left in overtime and her one-handed fling didn’t draw iron.
The fact that the Wildkits clawed their way back from a 7-point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter wasn’t much consolation for a stunned and somber ETHS head coach, Brittanny Johnson, whose squad hasn’t beaten the Warriors in 7 straight meetings between the two powers over the past 4 years.
“It’s the toughest loss I’ve ever had in my life, as a player, as a coach, anything,” Johnson said. “I wanted this one so bad for those seniors who have given so much to this program. It’s hard to explain. You’re not supposed to lose when you play that hard.
“We were one shot away from cutting down the nets.”
Evanston was seeking its first Illinois High School Association sectional championship since 2013 and the program has won just 3 sectional crowns in its history. But even the Kits’ best defensive effort of the season couldn’t get them over that postseason hump.
Harassed and hounded by ETHS defenders for 36 minutes, Dugalic still managed to make a difference for the defending state champs. She converted 3-of-4 free throws in the overtime, scoring all of Maine West’s points, and the 6-foot-4 University of Oregon recruit made a game-saving play when she blocked a 3-point try by Lola Lesmond out of bounds in the final seconds before Turchin’s miss.
Dugalic, who should run away with the Ms. Basketball award in Illinois, finished with 14 points and 4 rebounds. Dylan Van Fleet added 10 points and Jacyln Riedl scored 9 for a Warriors team that is challenged offensively — they only scored 31 points in the sectional semifinals against Loyola — but plays a 1-2-2 zone defense that causes havoc every time they meet Evanston.
Henning, one of only two players in ETHS program history to score over 1,000 career points, topped the visitors with 15 points and Turchin added 10 points and 7 rebounds.
Lesmond, who was one of four players from the sectional grouping to earn a trip to the state finals next week for the 3-Point Showdown competition, sank 9-of-15 from beyond the arc in the pregame contest, but was 0-for-8 from 3-point range against West.
Evanston’s defense had to pull off stop after stop after stop to stay in contention, as the visitors turned the ball over 20 times and gave the champs too many extra possessions. Both teams shot just 33 percent from the floor.
“We talked before the game about having a purpose (against the zone), but it’s been a struggle every time we played them,” Johnson pointed out. “We didn’t handle their pressure well at all, and that was the difference in the game.
“Maine West has a lot of experience and it showed tonight. They never got rattled when we were making our run. I guess it’s their sectional until someone proves otherwise.”
Eight of Evanston’s turnovers came in the third quarter, and the Warriors owned a 31-24 advantage at the start of the fourth quarter. That’s when Turchin, who was mostly responsible for Dugalic’s off night on defense, came alive on offense as the Wildkits dug deep one last time as a team.
Those hearts that were soon to be broken featured a stronger pulse when the Kits opened with scores on back-to-back possessions, a bank shot in the lane by Henning and a 3-point bucket by Turchin. Maine West still led by 5 with 5 minutes left, when Evanston countered with a 7-0 run on a 3-point play by Turchin, a Rashele Olantunbosun free throw and a Henning trey to seize the lead at 38-36.
West’s defense wouldn’t budge and the Wildkits were just as stubborn down the stretch, forcing 3 turnovers by Dugalic in the final period.
Olantunbosun, a junior, tied the game by sinking both free throws in a bonus situation with 90 seconds to play. Logan’s steal underneath her own basket gave the visitors the last possession, but the end result was a hook shot by Henning from 15 feet that bounced away.
“I guess I could have called a timeout, but with the ball in Kayla’s hands, I trusted that she’d get a good shot — and she did,” said Johnson. “At the end of overtime we tried to get the ball to Jayla for any kind of a shot. I’m shocked that the referees didn’t call the contact, but it was a physical game and they let things go all night, so I guess I’m really not surprised.
“I thought Jayla did a phenomenal job defending Angela, although it was really a team effort. We defended her well. And Kayla played fantastic the entire game.
“I truly hurt for these seniors. They truly deserved that (championship) moment, and it hurts that they didn’t get it.”