Evanston Township High School held host Loyola Academy without a field goal for more than five minutes in the second quarter of Thursday’s Class 4A regional basketball tournament championship game, beating the Ramblers at their own game and taking an 18-13 lead with 2 minutes remaining in the half.

That’s when the Wildkits hit the proverbial wall.

Evanston’s Kailey Starks prepares to score a layup during the Wildkits’ Dec. 16 loss at Loyola. The Wildkits lost again Feb. 16, 43-30. Credit: Michael Kellams/thatphotodad.com

Fatigue proved to be an even tougher foe than the third-seeded hosts, who limited ETHS to 10 points in the entire second half and rolled to a 43-30 victory and a berth in next week’s sectional at New Trier.

Operating on fumes, Evanston shot just 4-of-20 from the field in the second half and couldn’t find a defender who could contain Loyola post player Paige Engels. She finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds for the winners, who kept their season alive and will take a 27-6 won-loss record into sectional tournament play.

Evanston settled for a final mark of 15-14 and it was a bumpy ride all season. Head coach Brittanny Johnson had to carefully manage the minutes played by junior Zuri Ransom and seniors Taija Banks and Sofia Rocca coming back from serious knee injuries for the first half of the 2022-23 season, then playing all five starters extended minutes in the season finale.

That’s not a formula for success.

“I could tell they were dragging when they came in at halftime [after surrendering the lead by allowing 10 points in the final 1 minute, 44 seconds of the half],” admitted Johnson. “I was just hoping we could find the energy somewhere, but we couldn’t.

“I don’t think we had the greatest game plan in the world coming into the game, and that’s on me. But I really think it was just that we got so fatigued. There were pockets of the game when we were just too tired to do much. We didn’t have our legs. We couldn’t play aggressive on defense and Loyola had a lot of long possessions in that second half.

Evanston’s Kailey Starks calls for the inbound pass from Dafina Ukaj in the Dec. 16 game against Loyola. Starks scored 11 points in the Feb. 16 rematch. Credit: Michael Kellams/thatphotodad.com

“It’s a tough one to swallow. This team will go down as a team that ‘could have been.’ We just didn’t have enough time to recover from all those injuries. I wish we had two more weeks to play, but when we finally started to get it, we’re in a regional tournament where it’s one [loss] and done.”

Johnson only used six players in the contest. All-conference guards Kailey Starks (11 points, 8 rebounds) and Ransom (10 points, 4 rebounds) did their best to carry the offensive load but the rest of the Kits totaled just a combined 9 points.

Ransom and Starks accounted for all but 2 points in a second quarter surge that supplied Evanston’s last lead of the season. The Wildkits chalked up 10 consecutive points, the last bucket coming on a length of the court dash and layup by Arianna Milam-Pryor following a turnover to make it 18-13.

Evanston coach Brittanny Johnson talks with the team at the Dec. 16 Loyola game. Johnson only used six players in the Feb. 16 contest. Credit: Michael Kellams/thatphotodad.com

That’s when the Kits ran out of gas. Loyola, hardly a prolific offensive team despite its impressive won-loss record, scored the last 10 points of the half on a couple of drives to the basket by Engels, an old-fashioned 3-point play from Kelsey Langston, and a 3-point basket by Morgan Bruno.

Evanston still only trailed 30-26 after three quarters, but couldn’t muster the energy to put together any comeback bid. A 3-point play by Starks and a lone free throw from Milam-Pryor didn’t put a dent in the lead as Loyola defeated the Kits for the second time this season.

“It’s been a tough year, but there were some positives, too,” said Johnson. “[Senior] Dafina Ukaj went from a freshman B player to a varsity starter, and Sofia [Rocca] played well over the last 10 games when she came back, and hopefully played well enough to get a scholarship someplace.”   

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