By Andrew Polk
In the blink of an eye, it was 17-0.
Kenwood’s suffocating full-court press defense stunned Simeon on Jan. 19, leading to easy layups and wide-open jump shots from the start. Just over three minutes into the first quarter, before some fans had even taken their seats, Simeon was forced to take a second timeout before scoring their first points.
In a rivalry game featuring two undefeated teams from Chicago’s Red-South Central conference, Kenwood led by a whopping 34 points at halftime. At the final buzzer, the scoreboard at Kenwood’s Bronco Gymnasium showed 72-30.
Kenwood’s girls basketball team is clicking at just the right time. After sealing its second straight conference title with the win over Simeon, the team entered the Chicago Public League City Championship tournament riding a six-game win streak against in-state opponents.
For Kenwood, the conference championship is only the first step on the team’s journey toward a lofty goal of bringing the program’s first state championship home to Hyde Park. With a talent-rich roster led by a passionate, experienced leader, the Lady Broncos are legitimate threats to win downstate in March.
Head coach Andre Lewis found immediate success when he took the helm of the Kenwood girls program in 2012, winning the Blue-South conference in his first season. Lewis, who grew up in Chicago’s West Side and played basketball at Lane Tech College Prep, developed his passion for coaching at Harlan High School in the mid-1990’s. He started with the boys junior varsity basketball team, eventually working his way up to coaching the girls varsity team at Harlan for 11 seasons.
After a brief stop at Morgan Park High School during the 2011-12 season, Lewis has been at Kenwood ever since. He’s amassed an astounding 200-69 record at Kenwood, elevating the team to an Illinois powerhouse. Kenwood currently ranks third in Illinois-Basketball.com’s state rankings.
Even after 10 prosperous seasons in Hyde Park, Lewis recognizes that this year’s Lady Bronco squad could be the team that rewrites the history books at Kenwood High School.
“We have an extremely talented roster, with a bunch of kids who can score the basketball, but if you can’t defend, and you can’t rebound, it’s hard to win championships,” Lewis said. “This team has hung its hat on excelling at defense and rebounding.”
Kenwood boasts three seniors already committed to playing Division I basketball next year. Guards Brianna McDaniel and Whitney Dunn are headed to Texas A&M and Loyola-Chicago respectively, while forward DonYeil Bolton recently committed to Alabama State.
McDaniel, the team’s leading scorer and a McDonald’s All American nominee, poured in 22 points in the win over Simeon. She credits Lewis for instilling the confidence the team needed to repeat as Red-South Central conference champs.
“Many people didn’t think we could be undefeated in conference, so buying in and listening to our coach when we needed it the most was the key,” McDaniel said. “We’ve just been taking it one game at a time.”
At Kenwood’s next practice following the Simeon game, Lewis kept things loose and light, even joining in on some post-practice free throw shooting with his players. Lewis likes Kenwood to have 90 possessions per game, or about one every 20 seconds, he said. Requiring that blistering pace on offense and constant defensive pressure earned the team the lighter practice after the big game.
“You have to be in good condition,” McDaniel said of meeting the 90-possession goal. “We know teams don’t like to run as much, so once we hit our 90 possessions, we feel we have the game down pat.”
As a male coach leading girls teams for over 20 years, Lewis has adopted a strict approach to coaching without dominating his players. When asked about having a male coach, junior forward Jazelle Young said she appreciates the tough-but-loving approach that Lewis brings.
“He’s going to push you, and he’s going to make you be the best player you can be,” Young said. “I feel like his place is to be a girls coach.”
Kenwood began the City Championship tournament as the top seed, trouncing 32nd-seeded Ogden International High School 83-16 on Jan. 25. The tournament continues through Feb. 12, with the championship game at University of Illinois at Chicago’s Credit Union 1 Arena.
Andrew Polk is a sports reporter at Medill from San Mateo, Calif. You can follow him on Twitter at @apolk17.