Brittanny Johnson could have taken the easy way out when COVID-19 issues forced the last-minute cancellation of last Saturday’s scheduled trip to Warren.
Instead, the Evanston girls basketball coach lined up another elite opponent despite the fact that the Wildkits were mired in a four-game losing streak.
Butler Prep of Chicago, one of the leading Class 2A state championship contenders in Illinois, filled in the void in the schedule Wednesday and the Wildkits rose to the occasion with a 51-41 victory at Beardsley Gym.
Matched up against two of the best individual girls backcourt players around, University of Illinois recruit Camille Jackson and sophomore Xamiya Walton, the hosts turned in one of their strongest efforts of the season at both ends of the floor and improved to 10-6 on the year.
The Lady Lynx kept ETHS sophomore Zuri Ransom in check – she notched 12 points but didn’t score a field goal in either the first or third quarters – so ETHS found other options in Dawson Wright (13 points), Kailey Starks (8) and Taija Banks (8) and didn’t back off once they realized that Ransom was the focus of the opposing defense.
That’s just the kind of balance Johnson and the rest of the coaching staff have been seeking all year.
“I love the fact that we were able to play Butler and that we were able to play two of the best players in the state,” said Johnson. “That’s a team that I think has a great chance to run the table in Class 2A. But we’ll play anybody who will challenge us.
“I think we made it tough on them for the majority of the game. We dictated on defense and our players were up to the challenge tonight. Zuri did a lot of other things to help her teammates get open, and all of the others stepped up for us. That’s the kind of team we want to be.
“Dawson and Kailey both played with confidence tonight, and I was happy to see that. They’re a big part of our offense and we know everyone is going to try to take Zuri away from us [offensively]. We all have to work together, and we need that confidence aspect to compete with any team.”
Both teams staggered through cold shooting performances (Evanston was 7-of-26 from the field, Butler was 5-of-26) in a first half that ended with the hosts clinging to a 19-15 advantage. Ransom’s first basket of the game, a 3-point swish from beyond the top of the key, didn’t come until there was just 1:10 left in the first half, but she added another transition bucket and two more free throws to close out a run that gave the Kits the lead for good.
Starks made sure the winners had some breathing room at the end of the third quarter. Her two free throws built the lead to 33-24, and she calmly drilled a 16-foot jump shot from the right wing with 2 seconds left in the period to make it 35-26.
Despite Walton’s game-high 23 points, and 12 from Jackson, the Lady Lynx never got closer than 8 points the rest of the way. Evanston converted 10-of-18 free throw attempts in the fourth quarter.
“I don’t think I’ve ever lost four in a row as a coach and I know Coach Lance [Newman] said the same thing, so it’s good to get this win. You could tell by our celebration that the girls were excited, too,” Johnson said. “Our goal is to compete every game and it felt good to get back to that. It was tough for us to get a rhythm over the [Christmas] break, and on top of that we played a lot of quality teams, so our confidence took a hit. I knew this would be a tough game for us, in terms of our execution, but it was an opportunity for them as players to just go out and make plays. They’re starting to understand that every possession matters.”