The fact that high school girls basketball games don’t draw large crowds of spectators isn’t something the players dwell on very much.
But when there’s a buzz in the stands and people packing the place, Evanston’s players proved Friday night that they know how to feed off of that energy.
As a capacity crowd filtered in to Beardsley Gym while the Wildkit girls were falling behind archrival New Trier in the first game of a doubleheader with the boys teams, none of those early arrivals probably knew they were about to become witnesses to one of the greatest turnarounds in the history of the girls’ rivalry between the two schools.
Trailing by 9 points at the start of the fourth quarter, the Kits outscored the Trevians 33-14 to snatch a 68-58 Central Suburban League South division victory from their neighbors to the north.
It was a comeback for the ages, even though New Trier still holds a commanding edge – with 64 wins to 42 for ETHS – in head-to-head matchups all-time.
The 1-2-3 punch of junior guards Arianna Milam-Pryor (20 points), Zuri Ransom (19 points, 7 steals, 6 rebounds) and Kailey Starks (11 points) turned the tables on a Trevian team that had scored a lopsided 52-31 triumph in the first meeting this season between the two teams. But in that game played at Northwestern University, the losers were minus three starters due to illness and/or injury, and Ransom and Milam-Pryor had to watch that one in street clothes.
“That was the most embarrassing loss I think I’ve had as a coach,” said ETHS head coach Brittanny Johnson. “This is the start of our revenge tour. The girls all want to put their best foot forward now against any team we lost to before this.
“Our junior guards really stepped up tonight. That’s the most locked-in I’ve ever seen Ari and she really wanted to help her team win. The way she stepped up for us was huge. It was so amazing to play in front of a big crowd like this and I’m so happy our girls got to experience that.”
Ransom broke loose for 10 points in the fourth quarter to carry the Kits to the finish line after scoring only three field goals in the first three quarters.
“That’s probably the best fourth quarter I’ve ever played,” said Ransom. “The crowd was really good tonight and I love it when it’s like that. It gives us even more motivation because you’re in front of all those people – now you have to win!
“We knew New Trier wasn’t better than us and we knew we were still in it in the locker room at halftime [down 29-22]. Our energy definitely switched and amped up in the second half in front of that crowd. I wasn’t making shots tonight, so I tried to keep playing downhill to get free throws and layups if I could. I just tried not to let the misses get to me.
“Ari kept our momentum up from the beginning tonight. She came in ready to play and she was a big key for us in a big win. And Kailey had two fouls in the first half, but she really made an impact [with all 11 of her points] in the second half.”
Milam-Pryor’s hot start – she sank the first six shots she tried – kept the Kits within striking distance and countered a sizzling performance by New Trier’s Sela Klein. Klein, who also missed the first game because of an injury, stashed in 13 points in the first half and tied Milam-Pryor for game honors with 20 points. She went to the bench with an injured ankle during Evanston’s fourth quarter run.
“Ari put those open looks in tonight. With her, confidence is everything,” Johnson said. “The way she stepped up for us was just huge.”
Evanston applied full-court pressure to turn up the heat trailing 44-35 and forced seven Trevian turnovers down the stretch. Consecutive 3-point baskets from Dafina Ukaj (9 points) narrowed the gap to 46-45, and the Wildkits finally seized the lead at 53-52 with 3 minutes, 22 seconds left in the quarter on a drive to the basket by Milam-Pryor that began with a steal by Ransom.
ETHS reeled off 9 straight points at that juncture to take control and never looked back while improving to 12-12 on the season, 5-5 in Central Suburban League South division play. New Trier dipped to 16-12 and 4-6, respectively, despite 16 points from Rachael Zacks.
The two rivals could meet again in postseason play. New Trier earned the No. 5 seed and Evanston is seeded sixth in the Class 4A New Trier Sectional tournament, behind (in order) Maine South, York, Loyola Academy and Glenbrook South.
Evanston is assigned to the Loyola Regional and opens postseason play against No. 11 seed Niles West at 7:30 p.m Feb. 14. The regional championship game is set for 7 p.m. Feb. 16.