Dejected Wildkits make their way to the locker room Feb. 22 after a heartbreaking 43-41 loss to the Maine South Hawks. (Photo by George Pfoertner)

It only took an instant for Caitlin Leyden to beat the buzzer – and break Evanston’s hearts.

The Maine South freshman scored a layup just before the final horn sounded, denying the Wildkit girls a trip to the Class 4A Glenbrook South Sectional tournament championship game with a devastating 43-41 defeat in the semifinals Tuesday night.

The Hawks, who split two regular-season matchups with ETHS, went the length of the court in the final 9.9 seconds against Evanston’s pressure and scored the game-winner when Megan Fahey found Leyden underneath the basket as time ran out.

No. 2 seed Maine South will take a 24-9 record into Thursday’s title contest against top-seeded Loyola, which downed Glenbrook South 51-34 in the first game of Tuesday’s doubleheader.

The last-second nature of the loss would have been devastating enough for the Wildkits, who finished 19-10 on the season. But the fact that they were able to push the Hawks to the limit even with two of their top players, sophomore Zuri Ransom and junior Taija Banks, out of the lineup with injuries showed that guts and desire and gritty defense are factors that any underdog can use to try to keep a season alive.

It just didn’t work out that way for head coach Brittanny Johnson and her squad. Both Ransom (fractured finger) and Banks (knee) went down in the same practice on Monday, forcing the Evanston coach to go to a makeshift lineup and severely limiting the personnel rotation from the bench.

Still, the third-seeded Wildkits managed to come from behind to grab a 41-40 lead midway through the fourth quarter on a 3-point basket by senior Ellie Oif.

But they never scored again.

“This [effort] really speaks volumes to the kind of team this is,” said Johnson. “If a couple of shots go in, or if a couple of calls go our way, it easily could have been us out there celebrating at the end.

“They gave it everything they had right down to the final possession. Losing both Zuri and Taija was really a blow, and I commend our kids for the effort they put forth in spite of that. They showed up and competed hard, and I felt like they deserved to win. That’s what makes it so tough.

“I think Maine South was expecting us to fold. But there was something different about this team – their fight, their confidence and the way they loved and fought for each other. It’s really a special group.”

Evanston’s Kailey Starks drives between two Maine South defenders for a basket in the second half. (Photo by George Pfoertner)

Sophomore Kailey Starks scored a career-high 21 points and center Ciara Gentle notched a double double with 12 points and 12 rebounds for the losers. Emily Pape (16 points) and Fahy (10) reached double figures for the Hawks, and Leyden came off the bench to net all 8 of her points in the second half.

Tied at 21-all at halftime, the Hawks outscored Evanston 15-10 in the third quarter and managed to play with the lead for most of the final period of the 2022 campaign for the Kits.

Evanston turned the ball over 10 times in the third period alone, without lead guard Ransom available to run the attack.

“I thought the third quarter was the difference in the game, not just the last play,” Johnson said. “We lost our focus and we just kept turning the ball over. We got away from our game plan. We had our chances, but I think our inexperience showed at times.”

Evanston dug down deep on defense with the season on the line, limiting Maine South to just two free throws and a basket – all by Pape – in the first four minutes of the final quarter. Oif swished a 3-point jumper from well beyond the top of the key with 3:54 to play for what turned out to be Evanston’s last lead of the season.

But there was still plenty of drama remaining.

Maine South tied the score with a Leyden free throw at the 2:41 mark. The Hawks had possession with 60 seconds left, but couldn’t get a good look at the basket and Wright’s dive to the floor produced a jump ball with the arrow pointing in Evanston’s direction with 27 seconds left.

With seconds left and the game tied at 41, Wildkits head coach Brittanny Johnson gives the team instructions. (Photo by George Pfoertner) Credit: George Pfoertner

But after a timeout, Wright dribbled into the teeth of the Hawks’ defense and another jump ball ensued. This time it was Maine South’s possession with 9.9 remaining.

That was just enough time to prolong one season and end another.

“I was calling for a timeout, and so was Dawson [while on the floor], but I guess no one heard it. It was pretty loud,” said Johnson. “If we couldn’t get a quick score, we were supposed to get the ball out on top. I don’t know why we didn’t. If we were able to get that timeout we could’ve settled them down and got the last shot. We took some tough calls tonight.

“I thought Kailey Starks played her heart out tonight. She put us on her back to try to extend the season, especially for the seniors. That was absolutely the best game she’s played. Ciara played well too. Everybody did their part tonight. It literally took a shot in the last one-tenth of a second to beat us.”