BOURBONNAIS — No matter the outcome of Tuesday’s All-City girls basketball matchup between Kankakee and Bishop McNamara, it was going to be historic, as the game served as the first-ever girls basketball game in the 21-year history of the Thanksgiving Classic at Olivet Nazarene University.
And the history books will remember the Kays as the first girls to earn a win, a decisive one at that, as they forced 36 Irish turnovers that went for 21 points the other way in one of the largest margins of victory in the matchup’s history, a 79-26 final.
“I think it’s good that we get to start off our senior year getting the first [girls’] win in the history of the tournament,” Kays senior guard Ambranette Storr said. “We were really excited about that.”
The Kays employed their signature full-court press with all the aggressively packaged bells and whistles, a defensive scheme that was too much for first-year Irish coach Curt Crossley’s staggeringly youthful roster that features as many seniors as it does freshmen — one.
“Tonight was of course not the outcome we wanted, but the girls came out and competed,” Crossley said. “We’ve got some growing pains to get through, and we’ll have to get through those.”
The meeting was the first between the two rivals since last year’s IHSA Class 3A Regional championship the Irish won in overtime.
With only three players returning from that team for the Irish, the players are different, but the name on the front of the jerseys is the same.
“I believe that they were motivated from Febr. 14 at 8:47 p.m. Nobody remembers the tears that were in that locker room except for us,” Kays coach John Maniatis said in a nod to last year’s loss. “Whether that was burning in their hearts and souls for the last nine months, I can tell you they were motivated today.
“Not that they’re not motivated every day, but there was an extra little spice in the ingredients tonight.”
Once again, it was Storr who led the charge for the 5-0 Kays, outscoring the Irish herself with 28 points. She also added seven rebounds, six assists and four steals.
Storr said it was those steals, whether her own or her teammates, leading to quick buckets that allowed her to find a rhythm. She picked up three early fouls that tied her hands defensively at times, but the superstar senior still was able to make defensive plays.
“I think that going downhill gets me going,” Storr said. “I need to get out of foul trouble so I can get some steals and get easy buckets.”
Avery Jackson and Imani Williams also excelled for the fifth time in as many games this season for the Kays. Jackson scored 21 points and used her quick reflexes to poke out eight steals. Williams shot just 2 for 9 from the field but contributed heavily with 12 rebounds, six assists, six steals and six blocks.
Williams attended McNamara before transferring to Kankakee last year. One might assume facing her former school added a little extra fuel to the fire, but Williams said she didn’t need any other motivation than the same fuel she plans to use all year.
“Since it’s my senior year, I’m just treating every game like it’s my last game,” Williams said. “Just to go out there and play with my team, that’s what keeps me motivated and keeps me rolling.”
Maniatis and the Kays have piled up handfuls of historic accomplishments in now his third year with the team, with Tuesday’s win adding to the collection.
He said the win was vital for the program and also had flashbacks to his former coaching days at Hillcrest when he encountered former Irish coach Jeff Bennett, with whom he had many battles.
“We thought this was an honor and a privilege,” Maniatis said. “To be the first to do something, especially with the history that’s a part of this community, like seeing Jeff Bennett tonight gave me those instant flashbacks to those days of Bishop McNamara and Hillcrest, it was a tremendous moment for a lot of these young women [who] are building Kankakee basketball.”
Aside from their dominant trio, the Kays also got solid games from Jakia Autman and Sydney Ramsey. Autman had eight poiints, seven rebounds and two steals. Ramsey scored seven points and added four assists, five rebounds and four steals.
Caris White led the Irish with seven points, three rebounds, a steal and a block. Amari Stevenson had six points, seven rebounds and three steals.
Both teams will take on Bradley-Bourbonnais the next time they step on the court in the Thanksgiving Classic. The Irish will take on the Boilers at 6 p.m. Wednesday, while the Kays tip off with them at the same time Friday.
Boys: Kankakee 79, Bishop McNamara 29
Tuesday’s second half of the double feature saw the Kays’ boys score the same amount as their girl counterparts in their own 50-point win against the Irish.
Junior guard Rashard Harris, a solid-framed 6-foot-4 guard who transferred from Hyde Park during the summer, shined in his Kankakee debut, finishing with a game-high 20 points on an unblemished 8-for-8 night from the field.
Harris said he quickly found comfort in his new school and new teammates, which allowed him to find the earliest possible success.
“It was kind of quick,” Harris said. “ I picked things up on the same page they were on, adapted to a new environment communication wise and got to know them personally.”
Similar to the girls, the boys used a suffocating defense to navigate to their blowout win. They held the Irish to just a point in the opening quarter and scored a total of 31 points on 31 McNamara turnovers during the course of the game.
Kays coach Chris Pickett said his lengthy and athletic lineup — every starter is at least 6-feet-2 — lacks a true rim-protector as they had the past two years in 6-foot-9 T.J. Wicks but makes up for it with adequate size at all five positions.
“The only difference is we don’t have that anchor in the back like we did with T.J.,” Pickett said. “But having length on the wing is something we didn’t have the last two years.
“We play defense, and if you don’t play, you’ve gotta sit down.”
Leading that defensive charge was Deylon Johnson, who is back in the maroon and navy after transferring to Bradley-Bourbonnais last season and now back to Kankakee.
The shifty senior point guard led the Kays with six steals and also added nine points in his return to Kankakee.
“I feel good, I feel like I’m at home with these guys,” Johnson said. “They’re my brothers, and it’s just what we do. The guys treated me like I never left, and it’s been a brotherhood.”
Pickett said there were some initial concerns within the program on just how Johnson would fit in after playing his first year of varsity ball elsewhere, but those fears were assuaged quickly.
“There was some worry about chemistry; there was some worry about fitting in because he hadn’t been with us on the varsity level,” Pickett said. “But he’s been going to school with these guys since they were little kids, so that trumped all of the concerns that we had.”
And the next time Johnson takes the court on Friday, it will be against his former teammates at Bradley-Bourbonnais.
“Before the game, they’re my guys,” Johnson said of his old pals. “But during that game, I don’t know. It’s over with.”Stat Book
Aaryon Pore (13 points, one rebound, two assists, two steals) and Ambrozino Storr (10 points, three rebounds, one steal) also were in double-figures for the Kays.
Nolan Czako led the Irish with nine points. Manny Harris had six points, three rebounds and an assist. Owen Jackson scored five points and had three boards and two assists.
A version of this story appeared in the Friday digital edition of the Daily Journal.