One of the reasons Evanston basketball coach Mike Ellis was reluctant to promote freshmen to the varsity roster during the first part of his coaching career was that the ups and downs of a rookie season can have an effect on a player’s confidence.
But with the support of their older teammates right from the start of the current season--- and bolstered by the members of the ETHS coaching staff --- confidence hasn’t been a problem for Blake Peters or Elijah Bull.
The two freshmen hit two of the biggest shots of their still-young careers Tuesday night and sent top-seeded Evanston to the sectional championship game with a 61-51 triumph over Loyola Academy at the Class 4A Maine East Sectional tournament.
Junior guard Lance Jones scored a game-high 25 points for the Wildkits, and both Peters and Bull buried clutch 3-point shots as ETHS improved to 24-5 on the season. The Wildkits will face either Niles North or New Trier in the title contest on Friday at 7 p.m.
Evanston coach Mike Ellis has words of wisdom for junior guard Jaheim Holden.
In front of a capacity crowd, first Peters and then Bull rose to the occasion on the biggest stage they’ve played on. Peters’ 3-pointer just before the third quarter buzzer gave Evanston a 43-37 lead, and Bull swished a 3-pointer from the right corner with 5 minutes remaining that was the dagger in the heart of a gutty Loyola squad.
Loyola, which finished 24-7 on the season, connected on 10-of-23 3-point field goal attempts led by Kevin Cunningham’s 24 points.
“I thought our starting five really set the tone for the game (building a 27-7 lead in the first 12 minutes of the game), but both Blake and Elijah hit big shots for us tonight,” said Ellis. “It was great to see the confidence they had to be able to make shots in big moments like that.
“When we send a guy out on the floor, we don’t say what grade he is. It’s all about their experience and confidence, and strength and skill. With freshmen you’re always concerned about maintaining their confidence, and it’s to their credit that they’ve never lost it this season.
“We didn’t play very smart basketball tonight. Mentally, I think we played a (grade) D game, but physically and effort-wise it was an A. We did a good job of playing to our strengths tonight.”
Three-point shooting hasn’t always been a strength for the Kits this season, at least not lately. Peters has struggled over the past half-dozen games, with conference opponents especially recognizing how tight they need to guard the first-year standout, and Bull had only converted 4-of-19 triples in limited playing time this season.
Jones’ torrid start, including 13 points in the first quarter alone, helped Evanston forge a 31-20 halftime advantage. But Ellis knew that any team coached by Tom Livatino --- brother of Evanston Athletic Director Chris Livatino ---wasn’t going to roll over and play dead.
“Besides the fact that he’s the AD, Chris and (sister-in-law) Marie Livatino have been two of my biggest supporters since I came to Evanston. To me that makes it almost a lose-lose situation when we play Loyola,” said Ellis. “I see them in the building every day (Marie is a physical education coordinator at ETHS) and that makes it definitely not an easy game to play. It’s different than any other game. It’s a hard game to coach --- and it’s hard to celebrate even when you win it.”
Junior Lance Jones glides in for a layup on his way to a game-high 25 points.
The Ramblers rode Cunningham’s 3-point marksmanship (he finished 7-of-12 overall, including some buckets from as far out as 25 feet) and pulled even at 35-35 midway through the third period. The winners answered with a triple by Jones and a steal and layup by Ryan Bost , but it was still a one-possession game until Peters fired in what ranks as his SECOND biggest basket of the season.
Maine South remembers his biggest shot, as do thousands of viewers on YouTube.
“I’ve definitely been off with my shooting in the last 6 games or so. I guess all shooters go through slumps,” Peters noted after finishing with 8 points Tuesday. “But my teammates never lost confidence in me and they always tell me to keep shooting. At that point I knew we needed a momentum changer, and I had space and just let it go. We’re all just trying to do whatever we can to get Downstate.
“We knew that Cunningham is a great shooter, but when he caught fire I thought we did a great job of staying calm and not panicking.”
Bull, who played more minutes Tuesday because starter Jaheim Holden (9 points) was in foul trouble, connected on his crucial shot with the Kits attempting to spread the floor and milk the clock over the final six minutes.
“That was a dream shot for me, the best 3-pointer I’ve ever shot in my life,” Bull said. “It’s a tough situation when you’re out there as a freshman in the fourth quarter of a game like that. It’s the older guys who helped get me through those clutch moments. They’re always telling me to shoot when I get an open look.
“I’m just trying to learn from them as much as I can, so when my time comes I can make the best of it. They’re always yelling at me to shoot --- so do the coaches --- and I decided that was the moment. I was wide open, so I shot it.”
Bull’s dagger boosted the Wildkits to a 48-37 lead and the Ramblers didn’t have the firepower to come back in the last 5 minutes, giving the Kits their second win over their neighborhood rivals this season.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.