Mike Ellis probably won’t take too long to savor his milestone win. Like most basketball coaches at every level, the losses stay with the Evanston coach longer than the victories.
But Saturday’s 85-75 shootout win over Libertyville in the final round of the 41st annual St. Viator Thanksgiving Tournament was something special for the ETHS boss even if it wasn’t typical of his coaching tenures at Peoria Richwoods and Evanston.
Ellis earned the 300th triumph of his career — against only 125 defeats — in a game where you spelled defense with a small “d”, as the Wildkits bounced back from their only loss of the season to improve to 3-1 overall.
Ellis will never be satisfied to see the defense rest like that, but the winners rode career-high scoring performances from four players — Jaheim Holden with 26 points, Lance Jones with 23 and freshmen Blake Peters with 16 and Jaylin Gibson with 10 — and that red-hot offense was more than enough.
The Kits poured in 29 points in the first quarter, building a 20-point advantage, and cashed in on 9-of-22 3-point field goal attempts, a season-best showing.
“We have a lot of guys who can put the ball in the basket, especially when we share the ball and use each other in the framework of our offense and in transition, like we did today, ” Ellis said. “They did a good job of finding the open man. We had good looks again from 3-point (range) — we were 8-of-11 in the first half, and we’ll definitely take that. When you give up 75 points and win, the only way to do that is to make shots.
“Our strength is our offensive talent and we have to play to our strength.”
Ellis, who guided Peoria Richwoods to state runnerup finishes in both 2006 (Class AA) and 2010 (Class 3A) before making the move to Evanston, said he really couldn’t recall many specific victories in that 300 total.
He remembered losing his first game as a head coach — at a Thanksgiving tournament in Jacksonville — but couldn’t recall the first time he came away with a W.
“I’ve had so many good times, so many good memories, that it’s hard to pick one game I remember most,” he said. “That 300 wins is due to all of the great players I’ve coached in 15 years as a head coach. I don’t know how much I had to do with it. I just remember the losses a lot more than I remember the wins.
“I’m fortunate to have coached at two good schools. To achieve this milestone is a reflection of all those players I’ve had a chance to work with.”
Two wins did stand out for Ellis on further reflection. “When we had the opportunity to get to State at Richwoods for the first time, we were down 14 in the supersectional against a well-coached Bloomington team,” said the ETHS boss. “We went on a 22-0 run and beat a top 5-ranked team. That’s one that stands out.
“Here at Evanston I remember the sectional run we had at Glenbrook South, with Leonard Garron and those guys, against Niles North and New Trier to get them to the supersectional (in 2012). We were able to put the dreams of going Downstate back into the program that year.”
Saturday, the Wildkits forced 11 turnovers in that first quarter splurge and hounded the Wildcats to a total of 27 overall. Jones led the winners with 5 steals with Jaheim Holden, Isaiah Holden and Ryan Bost credited with 4 apiece. Bost also grabbed a team-high 9 rebounds, most of them coming in the second half to help keep Libertyville at bay.
Libertyville’s 6-foot-7 Drew Peterson scored a game-high 37 points after being shut out in the first period. He converted 14-of-19 shots from the floor against Evanston’s four-guard defensive alignment.
Libertyville trailed 47-33 at halftime and the margin stretched to 64-46 after three quarters. Even with Peterson scoring on almost every fourth quarter possession, Libertyville never crept closer than a 10-point deficit.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.