E-Town Showdown features nation’s No. 1 junior

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Fans who attend the E-Town Showdown high school basketball tripleheader event Saturday at Northwestern University will see four powerhouse teams ranked in the top 5 in the latest state polls, not to mention a showdown between two teams who could meet in the boys Class 4A supersectional in another month.

But those elite boys and girls teams will have to share the spotlight with a player who might be the next LeBron James or Kobe Bryant.

Evanston product Patrick Baldwin Jr., ranked as the No. 1 player in the country in the Class of 2021, is the player to watch in the tripleheader that begins at 5 p.m. Saturday. Baldwin, who plays for Sussex Hamilton of Wisconsin, will return to the Northwestern campus where both of his parents starred for the Wildcats.

Tickets for the event are still available online at www.tinyurl.com/etownshowdown.com at a cost of $10. Tickets cost $12 on game day.

Loyola Academy meets Stevenson at 5 p.m. in a possible supersectional preview.

Evanston, ranked No. 5 in Class 4A in Illinois, will meet Wisconsin power Hamilton at 6:30 p.m.

And a girls showcase game involving the host Wildkits and Benet Academy will conclude the tripleheader beginning at 8 p.m.

Every recruiting service in the country ranks the 6-foot-9 Baldwin in the top 3 in his class. He moved to Wisconsin from Evanston 3 years ago when his father, Patrick Sr., was named the head basketball coach at the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin. His mother played volleyball at NU, and Patrick Sr. was regarded as one of the best players in Northwestern basketball history before serving as an assistant coach for the Wildcats from 2013-17.

How talented is Baldwin Jr.? There’s a chance he could follow in the footsteps of James and Bryant and jump directly to the NBA if the pro league changes its rules regarding draft eligible players between now and next season.

If not, college powers like Duke and Kansas are hot on Baldwin’s trail.

Evanston head coach Mike Ellis predicts the younger Baldwin will be a top 5 NBA draft pick whether he plays in college or not. Loyola head coach Tom Livatino called him “a once in a lifetime player.”

“When you watch a player like that in high school, and you know that they’ll be in the NBA one day, that’s special, and it’s something you can’t say about a lot of guys,” said Ellis.”There’s not one red flag with Patrick. He has the size, the versatility, the intensity and the high character you need to succeed.

“I think he can shoot it better than LeBron did (in high school) and he’s on par with LeBron with his court vision, awareness and understanding of the game. The shooting aspect of his game is where he’s really a tough cover, because he can put the ball in the basket from anywhere on the floor.

“This gives us an opportunity to extend a hand to the Baldwin family again. Patrick grew up in District 65, and he played in our feeder program. He’s been in these gyms since he was in 3rd grade, and this is a great opportunity to re-connect with him and his family.”

 Loyola played Hamilton last winter in an out-of-state shootout and Livatino remains one of the talented junior’s biggest fans.

“Patrick has the total package as a player,”Livatino added. “He has point guard skills (at 6-foot-9), he’s long and athletic and he’s so coachable. He’s a ridiculously good passer and he always seems to make the right play.”

No. 8 Loyola Academy (22-2) versus Stevenson (18-3), 5 p.m.

The Ramblers’ recent win over Evanston probably propelled them to a No. 1 seed for the Elk Grove Sectional tournament, and Stevenson could be the team to beat in its sectional when the Illinois High School Association announces the pairings this week.

Stevenson is coming off a 27-6 season that ended with an overtime loss to Evanston in the Class 4A supersectional last year and returns all 5 starters for head coach Pat Ambrose. Two of Ambrose’s sons, 6-foot-3 senior guard Matthew and 5-10 junior Evan, lead the Patriots along with returning starters John Ittounas, Andrew Chieng, Robert Holmes and Matthew Kaznikov.

This year, the Patriots have scored quality wins over Zion-Benton and Mundelein while losing to Homewood-Flossmoor, Marian Catholic and Oak Park-River Forest.

For Loyola, 6-foot-8 Bennett Kwiecinski is the only player averaging in double figures at 10 points per game. But the senior and his twin brother, 6-8 Jordan, and fellow starters Matt Enghauser, Will Pujals and Billy Palmer are such demons on defense that Rambler opponents are only averaging 33 points per game.

That includes just 39 percent shooting from 2 point range and 25 percent from 3 point range. It would be an understatement to say that the Ramblers rely on their defense a lot.

“Our players really buy into being a defense first team,” said Livatino, who earned his 300th career victory in December. “They think that’s really cool, and that means they’re buying into winning more than themselves. I don’t know if this is our best defensive team ever, but our numbers are better than last year.”

Loyola got a boost with the recent return of Vaughn Pemberton off the injured list. The injury-plagued 6-1 junior missed part of the football season with a knee injury, and then suffered a separated shoulder when he was undercut on a layup attempt in a win at Leo.

He also missed the entire basketball season last year and is still rounding into form as the state tournament looms.

“He’s missed so many reps and so much time in the gym and he’s just rounding into shape now,” Livatino pointed out. “But he certainly has a lot of potential. He’s very strong offensively and he’s really good at getting to the basket and scoring around the rim. He has great instincts.”

Sussex Hamilton (14-1) versus No. 5 Evanston (21-3), 6:30 p.m.

Baldwin led the Chargers to their first state finals appearance in 31 years as a freshman, when he averaged 16 points per game, averaged 19 points as a sophomore, and currently is scoring at a 24.9 clip while averaging 10.5 rebounds. He poured in a school-record 41 points last Friday in a 108-73 romp over Menomonee Falls.

Hamilton’s only loss came to Wisconsin foe Brookfield Central (64-56) on January 17th, and the Chargers bounced back from that defeat to score 91, 108 and 88 points in their next three outings.

Joining Baldwin in the starting lineup are Carson Smith (14.3 ppg), Tanner Resch (15.0), J.T. Hoytink and University of Minnesota football recruit Lucas Finnessy (6 ppg, 7 rpg).

“We’re not as deep as we were last year (22-4 record),” admitted head coach Andy Cerroni. “But we’ve been pretty solid with our halfcourt defense and with our ability to defend the 3-point line. We only graduated one senior and we have three seniors who have been on the varsity since they were freshman, so we knew we’d be pretty good this year.

“I actually coached in an AAU tournament against LeBron when he was a sophomore and I saw how carefree he was with his ability to score whenever he wanted against guys who were 2 years older than him. That’s Patrick, that’s the way he elevates his game. No doubt about it, he has a special talent. “

After back-to-back Final Four state finishes and 18 straight wins to open this season, Evanston has struggled to play consistent basketball since winning the Centralia Holiday Tournament. The Wildkits lean heavily on 3-point shooting with a starting lineup that features guards, but the Kits are only shooting 33 percent (173-of-521) as a team from beyond the arc and haven’t found the offensive flow they need to succeed lately.

Juniors Blake Peters (14.5 ppg) and Jaylin Gibson (13.0) are prime time players and classmate Isaiah Holden’s remarkable assist-to-turnover ratio (85 to 40) on the year is another key to the Wildkits’ success.

Daeshawn Hemphill and Elijah Bull round out the all-junior starting lineup for ETHS.

“We’d love to have more nationally known teams come here and play in Evanston, in this great arena (Welsh-Ryan Arena),” said Ellis. “As a team we have to play through one another and play smart to play our best. When we share the ball and don’t turn it over, we’re hard to beat.”

No. 1 Benet Academy (24-2) vs. No. 5 Evanston girls (21-4), 8 p.m.

This is the showdown girls basketball fans have been waiting for all season. The two teams were expected to meet in the title game of the Montini Christmas Tournament, but Benet was upset by Lake Forest in the semifinals and Evanston went on to claim the crown.

Both teams have been ranked No. 1 in the Class 4A Associated Press poll this winter and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they meet in the last game of the season in the state finals.

The Redwings have averaged 30 victories per season in Joe Kilbride’s first 5 years as head coach, including back-to-back state championships in 2015 and 2016.

“We didn’t take care of business at Montini, so we didn’t get to play Evanston, but this game should be a fun one,” Kilbride said. We play a really good schedule and there’s no question that Evanston is one of the best teams on the schedule. We look at it as a good gauge as to where we are prior to the state tournament.”

Benet features three Division I signees — 5-11 Kendall Holmes (DePaul), 6-1 Brooke Schramek (Wisconsin) and 6-1 Lindsey Rogers (Illinois-Chicago) — and 6-foot junior Kendall Moriarty has already committed to Nebraska. Unsung point guard Ashley Berry runs the offense, which is led by Holmes (13 ppg) and Schramek (12 ppg).

“This is a really deep team, just like Evanston, and I think our senior class might be the best we’ve had,” added Kilbride, who served as an assistant coach for 10 years in the program and also was the head boys coach previously at Benet.

Evanston, meanwhile, is just trying to regain some momentum prior to the postseason. The Wildkits surrendered 77 points in a loss to Lincoln-Way West last weekend, then dropped a 45-43 decision Tuesday at Fenwick on a halfcourt shot at the buzzer.

Senior guard Kayla Henning surpassed the 1,000 point plateau and ranks second all-time on the ETHS scoring list and is the engine that runs the offense around Division I recruits Ambrea Gentle (Southeast Missouri State) and Jayla Turchin (Lewis).

“I don’t know if these are the 2 best teams in the state, because there’s a lot of parity in Illinois,” pointed out ETHS head coach Brittanny Johnson. “But we are excited about getting the chance to play Benet. We play a really competitive schedule and we’ve just had 2 off nights, that’s all. The only way to get out of that rut is to win. We’ll continue to fight and battle through this.

“The sign of a great team is how they handle adversity. On Saturday, I hope we get some basketball fans who normally watch boys basketball to stick around and watch 2 of the best girls teams in the state. This is a great way to promote girls basketball and I know our girls are really excited about it.”

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