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KANKAKEE — Basketball has taken Kankakee native and 2015 Bishop McNamara graduate Khadaizha Sanders places she never thought she would go. After a college career at Rutgers that allowed her to play basketball, attend school with and form relationships with people from around the world, the same sport she loved has brought her right back home to Kankakee.

Sanders, who joined the Kays’ girls basketball coaching staff as an assistant last summer, made her head coaching debut Monday in the Kays’ 60-27 victory against Thornton.

“I feel so comfortable just because I’ve always known coaching was my calling whenever I stopped playing,” Sanders said. “So, to do it here in my hometown, not in front of a big crowd [due to COVID-19], but we had some fans, so it felt really good.

“It really is a full-circle moment from playing at all those levels to come back here and coach.”

Head coach Kurt Weigt was out of town to watch his daughter, Kennedy, play her final college game. Before he left, he asked Sanders to fill in for him in the head coach’s chair, although Sanders credited fellow assistants Katherine Strong, Nate Hill and Jevon Wesby for helping.

Avery Jackson, who led the Kays with 17 points Monday, said there wasn’t much change on the sidelines without their head coach, thanks to the closeness of the entire staff.

“It was different but the same rituals,” Jackson said. “When he’s here, they’re still a core part of our coaching staff, so it wasn’t too different.

“They have knowledge of the game and know what they’re doing.”

The Kays proved they still knew what they were doing on the court, forcing 11 first-quarter turnovers and building a double-digit lead a minute into the second quarter. Part of that early spark came from freshman Aniya Lewis and junior Amari Stevenson, who were inserted into the starting lineup for the first time all season Monday.

At 5-foot-10 (Lewis) and 5-foot-8 (Stevenson), the pair gave the Kays more length, and the two were active defensively, using their length to clog passing lanes and force unpleasant traps on Thornton.

“They’re scrappy, and that’s what we need — someone willing to get on the floor and get after those loose balls,” Jackson said of her teammates. “Aniya has come in as a freshman and is one of our core people; we depend on her a lot.

“Amari may not look like a big man, but she plays like a big man, and her power moves set her apart from other guards.”

Sanders said the lineup change also allowed guard Sydney Ramsey and forward Nikkel Johnson to find themselves a better flow coming off the bench as well, which allowed the Kays to keep their early momentum and build on it.

“I thought they provided a good energy and spark for us, and it gave Sydney and Nikkel a chance to get a feel for the game and come in with another spark,” Sanders said. “It’s still early, so just seeing how we can mix and match lineups, it’s going well.”

By the time the running clock in the fourth quarter expired, the Kays had forced 30 turnovers and cashed them in for 19 points and scored another 18 second-chance points off of 20 offensive rebounds.

“We have a turnover goal, a deflection goal and a rebounding goal for every game, and tonight we met each one,” Sanders said. “In practice, we really emphasized the fact that Thornton had the size advantage over us by a long shot, so we had to box out.”

STAT BOOK

Jackson added eight rebounds, all offensive, and four steals to her game-high 17 points. Taylor Albertie added 9 points, five rebounds, an assist and three steals. Johnson, Ramsey and Brooklyn Baptist had 6 points apiece, as eight Kays scored on the night.

UP NEXT

The Kays (2-1) are on the road Tuesday for a 5 p.m. contest with Bloom.

Mason Schweizer is an award-winning reporter who has been with the Daily Journal since 2017 and sports editor since 2019. Save for time at the University of Illinois and Wayne State College, Mason is a lifelong area resident.