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Beating up on old friends isn’t the way most girls basketball teams would choose to spend the Christmas holidays.
But when four teams — including heavyweights Bolingbrook, Kenwood and Simeon — dropped out of the first Morton College Christmas Tournament because of the resurgence of the coronavirus, tourney officials were forced to change the format to a pool play setup.
And that put Evanston squarely on a collision path with former Wildkit assistant coach Carlton Rosemond.
The Wildkit girls shook off the rust of a two-week layoff with relentless defense that smothered Rosemond’s new team, Oak Park-River Forest, and registered a 46-17 victory in their tournament debut Monday.
Evanston chalked up its 8th straight win in its first game since another wave of the pandemic hit the community and forced the high school to shut down all extra-curricular activities, including four scheduled games and numerous practices that were canceled for the girls. Head coach Brittanny Johnson was among the variant victims and wasn’t certain she’d be ready for Monday’s game herself.
The matchup against Rosemond, however, was something she didn’t want to miss even though the Kits were originally lodged in a 16-team bracket where they were supposed to open tourney play against Batavia.
Now, they’ll play another pool play game on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. versus Benet Academy. Pool placers from the now 12-team field will be matched against each other on Wednesday and Thursday in separate brackets.
“In some regards, it was cool, and in some regards it was awkward,” said Johnson about playing against a former assistant who still works in Evanston. “I didn’t really want this matchup because he’s coached all of our girls.
“But I was really happy for him when he got that job because he’s always wanted to be a head coach, and I knew it would be a good fit for him. Just like I want all of our girls to be able to attain their goals, like playing at the next level in college, I want the same thing for our coaching staff.”
ETHS sophomore Zuri Ransom poured in 23 points and outscored the entire Huskies team in the process. Yet, after a solid start, the Wildkits (9-2 overall) slipped into neutral gear in the middle two quarters on offense before scoring on their first four possessions of the fourth quarter and outscoring OPRF 21-4 in the final period.
That up-and-down showing didn’t surprise Johnson, whose squad hadn’t played a game since December 9th.
“I actually thought our effort was impressive. We just didn’t have any flow on offense,” she said. “I told the girls that just because we’ve been off so long, our defense doesn’t have to suffer and it didn’t. We got tons of deflections and I loved how we played defense in this one.
“It was tough because we missed Kailey Starks [quarantined] who has consistently been a huge part of our defense, and because obviously the other team [and their coach] was familiar with what we’re trying to accomplish out there. Our offense was brutal, but it should have been, because we haven’t taken any shots in two weeks.”
Oak Park’s offense was worse than brutal, especially with all those Wildkit hands in their faces. The losers shot just 7-of-39 from the field and fell to 4-6 on the season.
Backing up Ransom for the winners were Dawson Wright and Ciara Gentle with 6 points apiece. Taija Banks contributed a game-high 7 rebounds.
Ransom fueled the Kits to an early 13-3 advantage with 8 points in the first quarter, but the winners shot a combined 4-of-21 from the field over the next two periods and couldn’t get comfortable even with a 25-13 lead after three quarters.
But ETHS started the fourth quarter with a layup by Gentle, a 3-point play by Ransom, a 16-footer jumper by Maggie Farragher and another score in the lane by the 6-foot-4 Gentle to put the contest firmly out of reach.
Ransom shot 8-of-12 from the field and 7-of-9 from the free throw line and has definitely taken her game to the next level, if you ask her head coach. “In the preseason we talked to her about her play elevating her teammates’ play, and she’s done that,” Johnson praised. “Now they’re trying to catch up to her. She is really in a groove right now. The confidence she has is way beyond her years now.”