It doesn’t seem right to say that an undefeated team is the future of girls basketball in the state of Illinois, but that accurately portrays the Kenwood Broncos right now.
A year removed from a 27-7 season and a regional title, Andre Lewis’ crew at Kenwood Academy raced through a pandemic-shortened season to a 13-0 mark — 9-0 in the Chicago Public League Red-South Central division. The Broncos also won the closest thing to a city championship that was possible in 2021.
On Saturday, March 20, Whitney Dunn led the Broncos to a 13-point fourth-quarter comeback on the road against Simeon, winning 73-66 in a redemptive moment against the defending 3A state champion.
“Just realizing this is close to the end of the season, end of the game, and we felt how we were feeling during city last year where we lost and all of those emotions and stuff… I feel like we recognized that this is important and that we can’t just give up and stop just because it looks bad now,” Dunn said. “At the end of the day, it’s basketball. Anything can happen. I feel like us thinking about that allowed us to play better, pick it up and start making shots.”
The junior guard’s 26-point, 5-assist effort helped bookend a rapid-fire season, a year in which Dunn further engraved herself into the conscience of girls hoop heads, who now know just how much the Broncos are not to be messed with.
“She’s fearless, she never backs down,” Lewis said. “Whitney plays her game no matter who we play against. It never changes.”
Against Simeon, it was more of the same, but with a missing piece that had to be accounted for.
When Brianna McDaniel, the top-ranked Illinois junior, went down with an ACL and meniscus tear against Evanston on March 7 the Broncos still had half of their games remaining in a two-week span.
“The fourth quarter versus Simeon was a testament to everything we preached all year about defending and rebounding and it generated our offense,” Lewis said.
Dunn admitted that playing without the team’s star was awkward at first, but the loaded Broncos were up for the task.
“Brianna is obviously a really big piece for us, but at the end of the day we know how to play together and we know how to play with each other,” Dunn said. “So just playing without her, I feel like that is what pumped us at more, because I feel like we were at a disadvantage and just wanting to make up for that.”
Winning the Evanston game by a convincing 18 points (56-38), and snagging comfortable wins over the likes of Hyde Park (77-42) and Lindblom (69-43) was further evidence of how Kenwood could operate even without the mightily talented McDaniel.
Dunn averaged 22 points and 4 assists per game after McDaniel’s injury.
“I’m very proud of our team,” Lewis said. “They persevered though: one, dealing with all these new protocols and the pandemic and the new normal we have deal with, in addition to one of our best players unfortunately getting injured. And they still stuck together, stayed focused as a unit and prioritized being the best teammates to each other that they could be.”
Lewis, who just finished his ninth season as head coach of the Broncos, has five regional titles and six 20-win seasons to his name, and likely would have added to both totals with a full season.
Dunn has seen her role grow rapidly with the Broncos, from a lockdown defender to a player who can score in bunches (17.8 points in under 20 minutes of play per game). The stopper identity still stands, however: She also averaged 3.3 steals per game.
Colleges have taken notice as she holds Division I offers from the likes of Valparaiso, Central Michigan, Cleveland State, UIC, Coppin State, Chicago State, Indiana State, UMKC, SIU, Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Lewis says Dunn is one of the best players he’s ever coached.
“I think a lot of schools are sleeping on how good she is,” Lewis said. “Whitney has a real unique job every night. Whitney’s job is to score the basketball and stop the other team’s best perimeter player from scoring the basketball. So, Whitney accepts the challenge and she actually enjoys that. She’s a two-way player, always has been.”
One player quickly came to mind for Lewis that demonstrated how Dunn has shown herself capable of shutting down excellent offensive players.
Dunn held eventual Girls Catholic Athletic Conference player of the year and Air Force women’s basketball commit Lauren McDonald of St. Ignatius in-check as Kenwood raced to a 42-15 halftime lead in a 64-39 win. That same game, Dunn coupled the defensive effort with a game-high 19 points (all in first half) on 7-of-11 shooting, including 5-of-8 from beyond the three-point arc.
“McDonald struggled the first half [with Dunn guarding her],” Lewis said. “(McDaniel) started guarding her and then in the fourth quarter she (Dunn) guarded her some more, but she’s given problems to a lot of players. Because Whitney is long, she moves her feet extremely well and again, she has no back-down. The same confidence and aggressiveness that she plays on offense, she plays with defense as well.”
That attitude in part comes from her brother
“I feel like whoever I’m guarding … they shouldn’t score on me at all, period,” Dunn said. “ I feel like I developed that from my brother because he’s a really good defensive player and just him guarding me and me guarding him, he really made me better.”
With younger players like sophomore Ayanna Jackson and freshman Ariana Williams buying in on the defensive end and contributing steadily most games, Lewis felt like Kenwood had a successful year.
“We basically accomplished everything that we could have this season,” Lewis said. “To defeat a ranked St. Ignatius, who’s a very good team by the way, but to beat them the way that we did was awesome. To defeat Evanston after Bri [McDaniel] gets hurt at the end of the first quarter was great. And to be able to beat the No. 1 team in the state, what more can you ask of your kids, especially when your best player wasn’t available and gutted their way through it?”
But the Broncos — with two to-be seniors among the best in 2022 class in Illinois plus fellow returners Zoe Belcher, DonYeil Bolton, Jazelle Young and other talented younger Broncos — expect to be No. 1 on many pundits’ preseason rankings come next season, no matter where McDaniels’ recovery stands.
What does Dunn want next season? It’s simple.