Things started slowly for Evanston girl’s basketball in the consolation championship of the Morton Christmas tournament – The Wildkits went more than five minutes without converting a field goal against Sycamore High School – but once shots started falling, they didn’t stop.

Those first five minutes began with Sycamore Spartans denying Zuri Ransom the ball. They had a defender with a hand in Ransom’s face to shadow her as soon as she crossed half-court. The bold statement out of the gate initially proved effective, but as the Kits settled in, Ransom’s teammates made the Spartans pay for their lack of attentiveness.

Evanston’s Zuri Ransom goes around the defense during a game against Maine South Nov. 29. Credit: Michael Kellams/thatphotodad.com

One of those teammates was Kailey Starks. Starks scored 17 points, as did Ransom even with the Spartan defense keying in on her. Wildkits head coach Brittanny Johnson said Friday’s game was possibly the best performance the two players have had as a duo, and that includes a lot of history: they’ve been major varsity contributors since their freshmen year.

After ending the first quarter tied at 10 points apiece, the Kits’ 22-point second quarter – where Ransom and Starks each scored 6 points – gave them a commanding lead entering halftime, and they didn’t look back. The Kits finished with a 64-46 victory over Sycamore, winning the consolation championship of the Morton Christmas tournament.

Evanston’s Kailey Starks (20) dribbles up court during the Wildkits’ loss at Loyola on Dec. 16. Credit: Michael Kellams/thatphotodad.com

“They’ve played together for a long time, they played AAU, high school and FAAM together,” Johnson said. “They have a lot of time together, but sometimes they don’t always play well together. I’m hoping that this is the event that I show them were different pockets in the game, they each found opportunities. And then on top of that, we had other kids step up.”

One focus of the Kits’ coaching staff with Starks has been to make sure her high motor work remains in control. Starks’ quickness and explosiveness are large parts of her success on both ends of the court, but up-tempo basketball can occasionally lead to more mistakes.

“She’s the type of kid where she wants it so bad,” Johnson said. “She just wants to do whatever it takes for her the team. We’re trying to find ways to bottle that to be more productive for her, and I felt like it was today. … She’s like our spark plug.”

Both Starks and Ransom each had five steals, often disrupting the Spartan passing lanes in the strong defensive effort. It was the ability to score in transition that Johnson cited as what got the team going after the slow start.

Evanston’s Ciara Gentle during Evanston’s 44-40 win over Maine South on Tuesday, Nov. 29. (Credit: Michael Kellams/thatphotodad.com) Credit: Michael Kellams/thatphotodad.com

Another standout was Ciara Gentle, who scored 8 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked five shots for the Kits.

The senior was tasked with guarding 6’5″ Sycamore star and Western Michigan University recruit Evyn Carrier. Carrier’s ability and size, scoring from all three levels and handling the ball well, created a tough matchup, but Gentle stood up for the occasion.

The 6’4″ senior has thrived as a rim-protector in her Wildkit career. Where the matchup was less familiar for Gentle was having to step out to the perimeter to defend Carrier. Nonetheless, she impressed the Kits with her ability to stay with Carrier from the three-point line to the paint.

“Ciara gets up when she plays post players who are just as big as she is, that’s something that really excites her,” Johnson said. “So I knew that it was going to be a good matchup between those two… it was fun to watch.”

Gentle’s intelligence has impressed Johnson as well when it comes to discipline, being able to get blocks without fouling, as well as Gentle’s awareness of positioning as skills that allow her to excel.

But her basketball IQ was just as apparent on the offensive end of the court on Friday, with multiple assists from the post to her cutting teammates. Those passes from Gentle, along with the sucess and coexistence of Ransom and Starks, are telltale signs of the Kits gelling. 

Seeing that growth in games, rather than practices (this week was Evanston’s first with a healthy rotation (previously they had practiced just once together), was an interesting twist that Johnson sees as positive for her and the team.

“What’s great about this tournament is we got everybody back started away. And instead of having practices, we were able to work through what we needed to in games and I think that’s pretty powerful for us,” Johnson said.

The Kits improved to 8-7 on the season after the win against Sycamore (7-10). The tournament started with a loss to Benet Academy (11-3) and wins over Lincoln-Way Central High School (8-7) and Lincoln-Way West High School (12-4).

Evanston doesn’t play again until Friday, Jan. 6, when the team heads to Park Ridge to play the Maine South High School Hawks. The Kits beat the Hawks 44-40 on Nov. 29. Since then, the Hawks (13-3) have won their last 10 games.

“We really have to refocus, because now we’re going to get back into the second half of conference,” Johnson said. “We just want to make sure that we’re as prepared as we can. So can’t waste this week, we’ve got to attack it hard.”

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