Dafina Ukaj wore an ear-to-ear grin after scoring a career high 23 points for the Evanston girls basketball team Monday night.
But Ukaj was only the second-happiest person in the Buffalo Grove gymnasium.
“Twenty years from now when I look back at this game it will still make me smile because of what Dafina did tonight,” said ETHS head coach Brittanny Johnson after her squad broke through for its first victory of the season, a 65-53 triumph. “I just love that this happened for her, that she got a moment like this.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be as excited for anyone as I am for her. It’s great moment for Dafina and she deserves it.”
The 5-foot-4 senior guard missed half of last season with a stress reaction to a shin injury and you almost didn’t need both hands to count the number of minutes she played.
And that’s pretty much been her career path at ETHS, stuck on the bench in a supporting role.
“She was on the B team as a freshman and maybe played for the A team when they needed bodies,” Johnson noted. “And she battled through COVID-19 with the JV team and really didn’t play much at all.
“But she has such heart and she has shown the ability to accept any role we need her to be in. She’s such a great kid and nobody works harder than she does. She just said to herself that we weren’t going to lose tonight and I think that mindset trickled down to the other players. That’s what you want from a senior, to treat it like it’s your last game.”
Ukaj knocked down five of seven field goal attempts from 3-point range and added 4 rebounds and 3 steals as the Wildkits improved to 1-2 on the season. Zuri Ransom added 20 points – including a 4-point play in the third quarter – and Kailey Starks chipped in 10 points and 9 rebounds.
As a team, Evanston connected on 11-of-20 3-point attempts, one of the best efforts in program history.
“Eleven 3-pointers? That hasn’t happened here in my tenure as coach,” added Johnson. “Some of the girls have been working extra on their shooting and they came in early today to shoot. We didn’t shoot well at all in our first two games, but I think we have a team this year that can knock down shots if they’re left open.”
Ukaj thinks so, too, and that’s just what she did after the Bison (1-3 overall) switched from a man-to-man to a 3-2 zone defense in the second quarter.
“Anyone can be a shooter, but I’ve been trying to focus on being a consistent shooter,” Ukaj said. “I just bounced off the energy of my teammates tonight. I have a great support system and my teammates helped me get my confidence [as a shooter] back. My job is to knock down shots for this team.
“I was more of a playmaker when I did play as a freshman and sophomore and I have definitely grown into more of a shooter now. I took what I learned last year [watching from the bench] and now that I have a chance to play, I know I have to take advantage of that opportunity.
“I’m really thankful to get these minutes and it’s definitely exciting for us to get this win. This is a great way for us to get on a roll now.”
Ukaj scored her previous career high, 9 points, in last Friday’s loss to Milwaukee Academy of Science and stayed hot with a rare Monday game on the Wildkit schedule. Buffalo Grove needed another opponent and made ETHS a late addition because the Bison wound up with an uneven number of teams for the Thanksgiving tournament they’re hosting and would have had to play one less game than the others in the field.
The outcome against ETHS won’t count in that tourney, but it certainly counted for Ukaj. She connected on 8-of-14 shots overall as the Kits got caught up in a shooting contest with a Buffalo Grove quintet that wasn’t shy about taking 3-pointers either. The losers sank 6-of-18 tries from beyond the arc and got double figure point production from Olivia Genthner (14 points) and Hanna Glanz (12).
Leading 12-7 after the first quarter, the Wildkits fed off of Ukaj’s hot hand as she poured in 9 points in the second quarter for a 31-26 halftime lead.
The senior guard couldn’t miss in the third quarter, either, as she went 4-for-4 from the field, including a trio of treys.
“Obviously we were feeling it from 3 tonight,” said Johnson. “We’re still trying to find our identity as a team and they really needed this win. This is a much needed feeling for this group.”