Back at the top of his game, Nojel Eastern showed fans at one of the most highly-regarded basketball tournaments in the country just why he’s a Division I player Wednesday night at the Beach Ball Classic tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
The Evanston senior fueled a late 15-2 run and sent the Wildkits into the tournament semifinals with a game-high 22 points in a 68-59 trimming of Scott County of Georgetown, Ky.
Evanston improved to 12-1 on the season. Coach Mike Ellis’ squad will face Pace, an entry from Georgia, in Friday’s 7 p.m. semifinal.
Eastern scored 8 of the 15 points chalked up by ETHS in a 15-2 run after Scott County (8-2) had closed to within 47-45 with 6 minutes, 39 seconds left in the second half.
The Cardinals refused to go away after that surge, responding with 9 unanswered points of their own, before the Kits salted away the victory with 6 straight free throws from Chris Hamil, Jaheim Holden and Eastern.
Eastern shrugged off a poor shooting night in the opener and finished with 22 points, along with 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocked shots and a steal.
Elyjah Williams contributed 12 points and 7 rebounds, Holden went 7-of-8 at the charity stripe on his way to an 11-point outing, and Ryan Bost netted 9 points for the winners. Sophomore forward Mike Moreno paced the Kentucky team with 22 points.
“It feels great to get to the Final Four. It’s a big accomplishment, but our goal is to win the championship,” Eastern said.
“I like the pressure of playing in a tournament like this. I know a big reason we were invited here is because of me, but I also know that my team is a big reason that I’m here. I just felt like tonight I had to continue to attack and be aggressive, to set my teammates up for open shots, and just do whatever it takes to win. We just had to continue to put the pressure on them. It was working, so why stop?”
Ellis, who spent much of the first half counting off his team’s frequent turnovers on the sidelines — they finished with 22 — pointed out that Eastern only committed 2 turnovers in 32 minutes.
“Nojel has been prone to playing out of control, playing too fast sometimes in the past for us, but tonight he was our rock,” Ellis praised. “It was good to see the way he solidified our play tonight, whether he was down in the post scoring or controlling the ball out front.
“I’m not surprised to be in the Final Four because of the way we’ve already been tested in some of our other games. We just talked about playing smarter, but we played hard tonight and we made our free throws down the stretch, something we didn’t do the other night.
“That’s a really good, young, talented team we were up against, and our guys really stepped it up and won the last 4 minutes. We’re just trying to beat these teams 1 possession at a time.”
The Wildkits pulled away at the end of the first half as sophomores Holden and Bost sparked the transition game, racking up 10 points in the last 2 minutes to create a 31-24 halftime edge.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.