PEOTONE — It’s not very often a tournament championship is the second-most impressive feat for a team to accomplish in a day.
But for Kankakee, that was the case Saturday.
The Kays’ 59-45 win against Plainfield South in the championship game of the Blue Devil Holiday Classic in Peotone gave the Kays the tournament trophy, but they also became the first girls basketball team in Illinois High School Association history to win 20 games before Jan. 1, as the win improved them to a perfect 20-0.
“This goes back to the intangibles and character [the team] brings to the table,” Kays coach John Maniatis said. “They’ve earned and deserved to be where they’re at because they’ve put in the time; they’ve put in the preparation, and it comes down to the talent that they have.”
It wasn’t the most appealing offensive performance of the season for the Kays, as the team shot 20 of 69 (29 percent) from the field and turned the ball over 20 times.
Maniatis said the team’s tenacity on the rebounds, the biggest key to the game coming in, was what won it for the Kays on Saturday. After watching the Cougars spend the first three days of the tournament cleaning up on the boards, the Kays out-rebounded them 40-33.
“The word in the locker room was ‘relentless,’ to be relentless, and I think our kids took that to heart,” Maniatis said. “They imposed their will on the boards, which may have shocked [Plainfield South].”
And once again, it was Imani Williams who paced the Kays on the glass. She hauled in 16 rebounds on the day, including a dozen on the offensive end.
“That’s my specialty,” Williams said of her rebounding duty. “If I can get [to the ball] first, I have to beat the [other team].”
After a 13-2 run between the end of the first and start of the second quarters gave the Kays a double-digit lead at 22-10, the teams traded blows, with the Kays’ lead fluctuating between 5-10 points for a majority of the second half.
But just like that, freshman guard Avery Jackson notched a pair of steals that turned into layups and made free-throws on the other end, and Ambranette Storr made a pair of buckets, to give the Kays a late 11-2 run to sail away with their record-setting win.
“I thought we started off strong and hit some lulls; the peak-and-valley type of thing,” Maniatis said. “But if you go with the boxing analogy, we kept throwing jabs, throwing jabs and then hit them with the knockout punch.”
Storr, who was named the tournament’s most valuable player, led the Kays with 18 points. After transferring to Kankakee during the summer, the nationally renowned college recruit said she’s having a blast at her new school and with her new team.
“It’s fun having the competitive atmosphere around every day, just pushing each other and making each other better,” Storr said. “All our hard work in practice, in the offseason, lifting weights — it’s all paying off.”
While Storr has known nothing but victory in her first 20 games as a Kay, the same can’t be said for seniors such as Tabetha Jones, who was playing varsity basketball before Maniatis took over last season.
Before last year’s sectional championship under Maniatis, the Kays limped to a 5-18 finish in Jones’ sophomore year, the 2016-17 season. Jones said she knew the team would improve during her final years but not to this historic level.
“I expected us to get better,” Jones said. “But I never could have expected this exponential growth out of everyone.”
Maniatis said the same tools his girls have displayed on the court are the same tools that will serve them well in life, long after their days on the high school hardwood.
“These are priceless moments; they’ve gotten to see the rise,” Maniatis said. “These are the things that come with putting in hard work, effort enthusiasm and energy to see it come to fruition.
“Those are the building blocks for life and hopefully something they take with them down the road.”
Storr added five rebounds and two steals to her team-high 18 points. Williams notched a double-double, as she paired her 16 boards with 11 points and six steals.
Avery Jackson had 10 points and five steals. Jones had six points, eight rebounds, four blocks and four steals. Tamia Wilburn had six points, three assists and five steals.
The Kays are off this week. They return with a home game Jan. 7 against Rich Central.