Editor’s note: This story has updated to correct the spelling of Arianna Milam-Pryor’s name.
The day after she erupted for a career-high 23 points against Buffalo Grove High School last week, Wildkit Dafina Ukaj reported for practice as usual only to be sent home with flu-like symptoms.
Tuesday night at Beardsley Gymnasium she passed that sick feeling along to Maine South High School.
Dafina’s dagger of a shot – a game-winning 3-pointer from the left wing with 41 seconds remaining – and two subsequent free throws delivered a taut 44-40 victory for the Wildkit girls over the Hawks in the Central Suburban League South division basketball opener.
The win over the defending division champs might not put the Wildkits firmly in the driver’s seat in the title race. It’s too early to tell which teams are contenders and which are pretenders in the CSL South.
But it was sweet revenge for a season-ending loss to the Hawks in the semifinals of the sectional tournament last year and gave the Wildkit girls a booster shot that could propel them past a slow start to the current season.
“That was a really big win,” said Evanston guard Zuri Ransom, who finished with a game-high 20 points and found Ukaj open for the game-winning shot to defeat Maine South’s double-team tactics against her. “When there’s a double-team, there’s always someone you left open, and they messed up when they left Dafina open.
“We got her a wide open shot and boom! She knocked it down!”
“This is a big morale boost for us after a tough start,” agreed Evanston head coach Brittanny Johnson after her club improved to 2-2 overall. “With all that’s happened, we were able to make plays when it mattered, and I think it shows we’re taking steps in the right direction as a team.”
Ukaj: ‘I knew I had to be shot ready’
Ukaj, a senior guard who has been stuck on the bench for most of her career until injuries to three potential starters cleared a path for her to earn a starting job, didn’t make much on an impact in the first three quarters as the two teams fought for separation on the scoreboard. She netted just 2 points on the only field goal she attempted, then fired in 7 points in the fourth quarter alone.
And she threw away a pass coming out of an Evanston timeout when the Kits trailed 40-39 with 81 seconds left to play that could have been fatal to the hosts’ hopes.
But she made the most of her second chance after Maine South’s Ally Pape misfired on an ill-advised 3-point attempt.
“I knew I had to be shot-ready. Once I had the ball in my hands, I had to knock it down,” Ukaj said. “I turned the ball over right before that, but one of the things I’ve learned is not to put my head down when I make a mistake like that.
“The free throws [a pair of bonus shots with 12 seconds remaining] were more pressure by far for me. I’ve been focusing a lot more on that in practice. We have a drill where you have to make 10 in a row, and that really came in handy today.
“At our team dinner last night we watched that last layup they made [a buzzer beater at the sectional] over and over again. This is definitely redemption for that game. We’re building a trust on this team, and when you have a basic trust like that – with trust, anything can happen.”
“I’m really confident with Dafina shooting the ball. I knew she was going to knock it down,” said Ransom. “Last year Maine South kicked us out of the [state] tournament and this was get-back for us tonight. We had our ups and downs, but we really wanted this win tonight.”
Arianna Milam-Pryor provided 7 points and 7 rebounds, and 6-foot-5 center Ciara Gentle added 11 rebounds and 5 blocked shots to help hold off the Hawks.
The winners committed a staggering 22 turnovers, but Maine South didn’t know what to do with those extra possessions except to pull the trigger on shots they couldn’t make. The visitors converted just 14-of-61 field goal attempts, or 23%, and only sank 5-of-23 from 3-point range while playing at a pace that wouldn’t have required a shot clock to speed things up.
“I think most of those turnovers were because of fatigue,” said Johnson, who only had one healthy player, Ransom, available for Thanksgiving week practices and had to postpone a scheduled game last Saturday against Whitney Young High School while flu swept through the squad. “We’re still turning the ball over way too much, though. We have to work on that.”
Ransom, who also grabbed 10 boards, poured in 14 of her points in the first half as the Wildkits built quarter leads of 13-10 and 23-21. But a late 3-point bucket by Meegan Fahy at the end of the third quarter gave the Hawks the edge at 34-31 entering the final period.
Fahy and Ava Blagojevich tallied 11 points apiece for Maine South.