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Monday’s game against longtime nemesis Maine West represented the last chance for the Evanston girls basketball team to make a statement to coaches voting this week for seeding of the Class 4A Glenbrook South Sectional tournament complex.
And the Wildkits had plenty of fun at Maine West’s expense on Jan. 31.
Whether it was the sight of Maya Wallace posing – or fake posing – for a selfie during her introduction in the starting lineup, or fellow senior Jordan Lodge trying to guard a player twice her size, or Lulu Ward scoring a career-high 10 points, the Wildkits added to their season resume by crushing the Warriors 66-33 and celebrated Senior Night at Beardsley Gymnasium.
Evanston’s 15th win of the season, against 8 losses, should deliver a top-four seed when the sectional rankings are announced next week.
Energized by the occasion and the chance to celebrate the careers of seniors Ellie Oif (team-high 16 points), Maggie Farragher, Wallace, Lodge and Ward, the Kits swarmed all over Maine West’s guards and forced a staggering 29 turnovers. Maine West managed just two field goals in the entire first half and was fortunate to be as close as 32-19 due to some phenomenal work at the free-throw line.
ETHS looked like a team that no one will want in the same bracket with them when the postseason push begins, and that’s just what head coach Brittanny Johnson is hoping for with games against New Trier, Niles North and Hersey left on the regular season slate.
“There’s no question that we should at least be the No. 3 seed [behind state-ranked Loyola Academy and Maine South],” said Johnson. “People may look at our record and think we could have done better, but we really did take care of business [in head-to-head competition] against the other teams in the sectional. And when you look at our recent games, I think we’re getting back to where we need to be now.
“For us to be at this point [15 victories with only 1 returning starter] is a testament to these seniors. All five of them understand there’s still a little edge to the rivalry when we play Maine West and with this atmosphere – a big crowd, the pep band playing –they just thrived on it. Tonight it was all them.
“We’ve had some great senior classes here with Division I basketball players and we don’t have any Division I players this year. But this group has worked harder than any team I’ve ever had. Their chemistry is so great and it’s been such a fun group to coach. They’ve never backed down from any challenge and I think they’re ready to make a statement in the playoffs.”
As is her custom, Johnson started all seniors and the Kits buried the Warriors by a 20-4 margin over the first nine minutes. Maine West turned the ball over 10 times in the first quarter and that may have led to some overzealous defense by the hosts after that, because the Warriors converted 13 straight free throws in the second quarter – seven of them by leading scorer Jaclyn Riedl (16 points) – and pulled to within 24-17 with 2 minutes, 36 seconds left in the half.
However ETHS closed out the half with an 8-2 run and extended the lead to 20 points (51-31) by the end of the third quarter.
Oif, who netted just 2 points in the first half, erupted for 11 points in the third period and was one of four ETHS players in double figures. Sophomores Zuri Ransom (12 points) and Kailey Starks (10) also joined in the scoring fun.
No one had more fun than Ward, a 5-foot-9 senior who has only played sparingly this year even though the Wildkits have at times been desperate for some offensive punch. Monday she converted 4-of-8 field goal attempts and also grabbed three rebounds for the winners.
She might have moved up in the rotation Johnson will employ in the postseason if she can maintain the confidence she showed Monday night.
“Lulu’s been holding herself back,” said Johnson. “There’s probably not a player I’ve been harder on than Lulu, and for the last couple of weeks we’ve been telling her to take more chances, to do something different. She just hasn’t had the confidence to take shots.
“She played really well tonight and I’m hoping the trajectory of her game goes up now. To see her thrive in that moment like that is the reason why I’m in coaching. I just want to push her to get to her potential.”