One of the best qualities about Nojel Eastern as a basketball player is the unselfishness he shows on the court and his willingness to take a back seat to his teammates and set them up for easy scores.
But sometimes — like on Friday night at Beardsley Gym — Evanston’s basketball team needs Eastern in the driver’s seat.
Eastern dazzled the home crowd with a 14-point splurge in the second quarter and finished with a team-high 19 points, as the Wildkits dumped Waukegan 66-56 for their 8th straight victory and maintained a two-game edge in the Central Suburban League South division race.
Following a brief visit to the trainer’s room after a collision with a Waukegan player in the first quarter, Eastern came back and knocked down five straight shots — four of them from 3-point range in different spots on the floor — and enabled ETHS to cling to a 33-28 halftime lead.
Waukegan did close to within four points by the start of the fourth quarter, then went six minutes without a basket as the Kits pulled away to improve to 16-2 on the season. Waukegan dropped to 9-10 overall.
Evanston’s balanced effort included Eastern’s 19 points, plus Tre Marshall’s 12 points, Malik Jenkins’ 11 points and 4 assists, Chris Hamil’s 9 points and Dylan Mulvihill’s 9 points and 9 rebounds. Waukegan’s Carson Newsome paced all scorers with 22 points.
Eastern’s offense has been dormant since the Kits returned from Kentucky, where they played a holiday tournament and the junior standout was named all-tourney. He’s been limited by foul trouble over the past two games, too.
But he rose to the occasion when Evanston needed him Friday.
“That skill set, we see that every day in practice from Nojel,” said Evanston coach Mike Ellis. “What most impressed me about him tonight was him sensing that this is the moment where I’ ve got to take over. He chose to sit in the front seat and drive us tonight, instead of taking a back seat.
“I’m grateful that Nojel is a player who can be coached hard. We sat him down in the first quarter because of some defensive breakdowns. We got on him, and to his credit, he didn’t sit and pout about it. He came back and made up for his mistakes. He led us back in a direction we needed to be going, and he stepped up and allowed us to have at least a small stretch where we were in rythmn as a team.”
Evanston’s defensive indifference sent the visiting Bulldogs to the free throw line 31 times and they converted 23 of those shots. The final margin, however, was deceptive because in the final period a 12-0 run by the hosts built the lead to 64-45 before the reserves took over.
“In the fourth quarter we did get some stops, and the transition points that we got started with our defense,” Ellis pointed out. “We’ve got to be more invested in playing that way for 32 minutes. We were just out there on defense, we didn’t resist anything. Our 1-on-1 defense was atrocious. This might have been our poorest performance of the season, along with the two games we’ve lost.
“ We were just going through the motions on defense, and the number of free throws they shot was indicative of that. We were a step late and a step behind all night.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.