There was no need for Elijah Bull to try to ingratiate himself with the Evanston basketball coaching staff all over again after starting his cage career at ETHS, playing last year in the Niles North program, and then transferring back to Evanston.
He’s still the same intelligent, hard-working, team-first player who doesn’t mind getting dirty on defense no matter which uniform he wears.
But Bull made sure his return to Evanston got off to a successful start Tuesday night as the junior guard delivered in the clutch and led the Wildkits to a season-opening 51-46 victory over Libertyville at the St. Viator Thanksgiving Classic tournament.
Bull scored 5 points in the fourth quarter, including a key pair of free throws with 44 seconds remaining, and also contributed a critical steal as the Kits outscored the Wildcats 18-13 in the final period on their way to a hard-fought win.
Evanston’s defense clamped down after Libertyville took a 40-38 lead with 3 minutes, 16 seconds left in regulation play, limiting the losers to just two baskets the rest of the way. The winners also forced 6 turnovers in the fourth quarter and converted 12-of-15 opportunities at the free throw line.
Junior Isaiah Holden led the Kits with 11 points on a night where the winners sank just 34 percent (15 of 44) of their field goal attempts. Daeshawn Hemphill, another newcomer to the program, contributed 9 points and Bull, Jerome Smith and Blake Peters netted 7 points apiece.
Jaylin Gibson came off the bench to add 6 points and a team-high 10 rebounds.
“We’ll have to play better tomorrow night,” said Evanston head coach Mike Ellis. “I thought Libertyville played with more intensity and more passion than we did tonight, but give credit to our guys because we didn’t panic. We made effort plays and we made intelligent plays when we needed them.
“We started the game strong and we ended it strong, too. The middle section of the game is something we’ve got to handle better.”
Libertyville, which lost 49-45 in overtime to Prospect in the first round Monday, was led by 6-foot-4 senior Patrick Graham’s 19 points and Blake Ellingson’s 12. The Wildcats shot just 32 percent (15-of-47) from the floor and committed 16 turnovers.
Bull’s ability to deliver at both ends of the floor came as no surprise to Ellis, who promoted him to the varsity as a freshman and watched him play quality minutes for a team that reached the Final Four of the state tournament.
“Elijah Bull gets a lot of the credit for tonight,” said the veteran coach. “He doesn’t have glaring stats, but he did a great job all night of pressuring the head of their offense and wearing them down. And he made a huge play for us with that steal at the end of the game, too.”
Evanston recovered from a 43-40 deficit with baskets by Bull and Holden, plus two free throws by Rashawn Bost, to take a 46-43 lead. But it was still a one possession game when Bull raced to the far side to intercept an errant pass, collided with a referee on the sideline and still kept the ball in play.
The result at the other end — with 1:43 to play — was a pair of free throws for Holden, who split them.
Bull might have actually been out of bounds when he banged into the guy in the striped shirt, but the official didn’t make a call.
“I just snuck up behind one of their players and he didn’t see me coming,” said the Evanston junior. “The ref was in my way — and honestly, I thought I was out of bounds. But he didn’t see it, so it’s all good.
“In the fourth quarter tonight I just tried to keep my teammates focused, lock in and play hard on defense and make sure that nobody panicked.”
Bull transferred to Niles North at the suggestion of his older brother, who played for the Viking coaching staff himself, but the Bull family decided to move back to Evanston this summer. “There was no drama in this,” the junior insisted. “Niles North has amazing players and amazing coaches and so does Evanston. Coming back here was the best thing for our family.
“We have great coaches here who will help us if we just lock in on defense. The key for us this year is to stay together as a team. If we play like we can play, I honestly think the sky’s the limit for us this year. We just need to take care of business on the floor.”
Evanston resumes play Wednesday in the round-robin tournament against Conant at 5:30 p.m. Conant (0-2) has dropped decisions to Saint Viator (64-42) and Prospect (46-43 in overtime) so far in tourney play.