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COVID-19 protocols were in effect to protect players, coaches, officials and fans everywhere you looked Saturday at Beardsley Gymnasium.
But was that really Lola Lesmond behind that mask?
Adding a new physical aspect to her game, the 6-foot Evanston junior recorded her first career double-double and led the Wildkit girls basketball team to a one-sided 49-27 victory over visiting Vernon Hills in the season opener for both squads.
Lesmond’s 19 points and 13 rebounds were the highlight in a ragged win for the hosts. If head coach Brittanny Johnson was in search of some teaching moments for her young and inexperienced club, she’ll probably enjoy watching the film much more than witnessing the actual game Saturday.
Evanston turned the ball over 25 times and yielded too many offensive rebounds to count, areas that Johnson will likely address before the first ETHS road game next Tuesday at Maine West.
“I literally did not know what to expect today,” said Johnson. “We definitely didn’t play well. But when you don’t play well and you still win, you have to take those.
“I knew the turnovers would happen (even though the Cougars only played a 2-3 zone defense the second half of the game), because they haven’t played enough together yet. But we’re so used to demolishing people on the glass and anyone can box out. It’s not talent, it’s heart. We have a lot of guards playing inside now and we need to be more physical and finish more plays.”
Masked up like all of the participants, Lesmond showed she’s ready to blossom as an all-around player after spending her first two years in the program basically camped out on the perimeter near the 3-point line. Saturday, she netted 14 points in the first half as the Wildkits built an insurmountable 31-12 advantage over the poor shooting Cougars.
The junior standout connected on 7-of-15 field goal attempts overall, including 4-of-9 from beyond the 3-point stripe, but her most impressive work came on the boards and in traffic.
Even elite players in the girls high school game often still shy away from physical contact, and that doesn’t prevent them from achieving stardom. But Johnson has favored a hard-nosed approach since she was a star herself at Fenwick High School and that’s the way she prefers her teams to play.
“Nowadays I still see girls, when they get screened or boxed out and someone gets knocked down, they worry about it,” noted the ETHS coach. “But I’ve always been defensive minded and to me that’s just part of the game.
“Last year Lola was able to just knock down shots from the outside for us, but she understands she has to do a little bit of everything for us this year. Today she played the 1 (point guard) for us, she played inside and she was able to move and get open for shots, but I think it was her physicality that shows just how much her game has progressed.”
Plenty of rebounds were available for the taking, considering that the visitors shot just 9-of-51 (rounded up to 20 percent) from the field. 6-foot-1 sophomore Alexa Cieslinski scored 13 of her team’s total 27 points.
For Evanston, senior Rashele Olantunbosun only played about half the contest but did reach double figures with 11 points.
Leading 8-6 after Cieslinski scored for Vernon Hills on an inbound play, the Kits reeled off 14 straight points to close out the first quarter and never looked back. The Cougars never got closer than 15 points the rest of the half, and when they drew within 33-18 midway through the third period, Evanston responded with a 3-point bucket by Lesmond and a baseline jumper by Olantunbosun.
While veterans Lesmond and Olantunbosun — the only two players left in the program who had started a varsity game — earned the spotlight, freshmen Zuri Ranson and Kailey Starks also made good first impressions on their head coach.
Ranson had a few nervous moments, then settled in as a player who could be the program’s point guard of the future. She finished with 5 points and 4 steals, while Starks came off the bench to provide energy and 6 rebounds for the winners.
“I thought both of the freshmen played well,” Johnson added. “The first half was a little bit of a struggle for Zuri, but she picked it up in the second half.”