The word “culture” is the message carried on the backs of the warmup T-shirts worn by members of the Evanston girls basketball team for the 2022-23 season.
What does that mean at Evanston Township High School? Toughness, in a word.
That, and the type of blue-collar effort displayed by the Wildkits on Tuesday at the Lake Zurich Exam Jamm shootout event in a 50-48 loss to a strong Barrington squad.
Trailing by 14 points with 6½ minutes left in the game, Evanston had two chances to
tie or win in the final 15 seconds, only to settle for a two-point loss – that didn’t really feel like a loss.
Evanston toughness has been a staple in the program long before Brittanny Johnson took over as head coach. Tuesday marked the first time she’s seen that characteristic in this year’s squad.
“A lot of small victories tonight didn’t lead to a big victory, and I’m a competitor who hates to lose,” said Johnson. “But this will lead to us getting better.
“In our first two games this season we didn’t show any fight at all and we didn’t compete. One month later we were right there with a team that went to the state finals last year. That’s really the first time I’ve seen that Evanston toughness this year. We didn’t give up, and we kept fighting through.
“We didn’t handle the last 20 seconds of the game very well, but I think we took a step in the right direction tonight. We could have quit, but there’s something in us that just kept responding. We’ve been struggling to figure out what our identity will be as a team this year, and after a game like this, maybe it just means being tough.”
The Wildkits (5-4 overall) almost came all the way back from slow starts to both the first and second halves behind Zuri Ransom (15 points, five rebounds, five steals), Dafina Ukaj (14 points) and Kailey Starks, who was chosen Player of the Game by event officials after scoring 12 points and grabbing seven rebounds.
Barrington, which led wire-to-wire including 44-30 early in the fourth quarter, improved to 9-4 and held on thanks to double figure efforts from Sophie Swanson (17 points), Gwen Adler (16 points, 11 rebounds) and Molly O’Riordan (11 points).
Ukaj, a senior guard, knocked down three 3-point baskets during that comeback charge by ETHS, the last one trimming the deficit to 50-48 with 15 seconds left on the clock.
Evanston applied full-court pressure and Starks stole the inbound pass. But she couldn’t square up her shoulders on a hotly contested shot in the lane, misfired, and Swanson was fouled on the rebound.
The Barrington player missed a bonus free throw try at the other end with 5 seconds remaining, giving the Kits an opening for a possible win or tie, but Ransom rushed up a shot from just over half court when she probably could have dribbled two or three times more to get closer to the hoop.
“I think Kailey just flipped the ball up because she felt the contact and thought she was fouled. I wish she’d taken a dribble and then gone up with it [shot],” said Johnson. “And we had the ball in the right person’s [Ransom’s] hands at the end. We’ll learn from those situations.”
Evanston fell into a 13-1 hole at the start of the contest – and then fell further into a box, when the Fillies shifted to a box-and-1 defense in the second quarter with Adler assigned to shadow Ransom everywhere she went on the floor.
The Kits adjusted on the fly and didn’t force things on offense, showing remarkable discipline and progress for a team that just two games ago mustered a mere 27 points in an entire game.
Evanston shot 17-of-49 from the floor against a combination of box-and-1 and 2-3 matchup zones.
“When I called that timeout in the fourth quarter, I told them there were two ways they could go. They could battle and come back, or they could lay down and lose by 20,” said Johnson. “We stuck with it, and we were right there.
“It’s a great feeling to come out and compete like we did. We were patient against the box-and-1 even though we haven’t worked on it at all, and they haven’t seen it in a game yet. They were able to pick things up [on attacking that setup] in the timeouts and at halftime, and that was really great to see.
“It was really great to see Dafina come through like that too. She’d been overthinking things [5 points in the first three quarters on 2-of-7 shooting from the field], you could tell from her shot. But she settled down and went to different spots on the floor to score. She came up big for us, and she had some great defensive plays for us too.”
Evanston resumes action Friday in the first game of a girls-boys doubleheader at Loyola Academy, with the girls game slated to start at 5 p.m.