In the first 20 minutes of Friday’s conference game at Niles West, Evanston sophomore Nojel Eastern went 1-of-4 from 3-point field goal range; missed 4 straight free throws; and misfired on a dunk attempt, too.
Then he put the Wildkits on his back and delivered Evanston’s first outright Central Suburban League South division basketball crown since the 2010-11 season.
Eastern’s 10 fourth quarter points — he finished with a game high 20 — rallied the Kits to a 46-44 victory over Niles West on a night when the visitors sputtered to mount much on an offense against West’s 3-2 zone .
Tied at 38-38, Eastern hit a pair of clutch 3-point baskets that provided just enough breathing room for Evanston to improve to 17-8 overall. The Kits finished 9-1 in league play, one game ahead of defending champion Maine South.
Eastern added 11 rebounds and 2 steals for the winners and senior Elijah Henry netted 13 points to go with his 9 boards. Jojo Rios and Evan Hines each scored 12 points for Niles West (9-14, 3-6), which fell short of an upset when a wild 3-point try by Octavius Parker missed at the final buzzer.
“Nojel focused up and said I’m gonna put this team on my back. That’s the kind of player he is,” said Evanston head coach Mike Ellis, who has seen the talented Eastern let the game come to him in several outings, only to rise to the occasion when the Kits need him most. “That conversation (urging Eastern to shoot more) has come up a lot this season, when we tell him he needs to be more aggressive.
“We don’t want him to get too caught up going 1-on-1 against other teams, but we told him he had to take over tonight. We ran some sets to get him some 3s, and he made some big shots.”
Eastern converted 7-of-16 field goal attempts but the Wildkits shot only 42 percent (17-of-40) against a zone that didn’t present many open looks.
A tip-in by Evanston junior Elijah Williams provided a slim 23-21 lead for the visitors, but Niles West countered with an 8-0 run to open the second half and came close to putting the slow-paced game out of reach.
Instead, the Wildkits pulled back into a 32-32 tie by the end of the period after a 3-pointer by Eastern and a Williams lay-in off a feed from Henry that beat the buzzer by 3 seconds.
“We were too casual, too relaxed, too careless with the basketball in the third quarter. But the way we responded after some adversity with that 8-0 run is something we like to see,” Ellis added.
Eastern’s 3-point bucket with 1 minute, 37 seconds remaining gave ETHS a 46-40 advantage. But both Malik Jenkins and Eastern missed free throws in the final minute, allowing West one last desperation shot at a victory.
Ellis didn’t know when asked in the preseason just where his young ball club (with only 2 returning starters in Eastern and Henry) fit in the CSL South division race. The answer? At the top.
“It’s definitely an accomplishment these guys can be proud of,” the coach said. “We talk a lot about winning titles, and we didn’t win at Thanksgiving or at Christmas, so this was their next opportunity to grasp that challenge. That was important to them. Every Friday night they brought close to their A game, and when we play well, we can play with anybody.”
Evanston will host North division champion Deerfield next Wednesday in the Central Suburban League Showcase game as a final tune-up for Illinois High School Association postseason play.
The Wildkits were voted the No. 5 seed in the Class 4A Waukegan Sectional grouping — behind No. 1 Stevenson, No. 2 Lake Forest, No. 3 Maine South and No. 4 Notre Dame. Evanston will host its own regional tournament and will open against the Loyola Academy-Chicago Taft winner on March 3rd at 7:30 p.m.
The regional championship game is set for March 6th at 7 p.m.
“We’ll only have 2 guys on the floor (Eastern and Henry) who have played in an IHSA postseason game, and in the postseason playing smart basketball is important,” Ellis added. “We drew a tough regional. But it comes down to who it’s most important to. Teams with great chemistry like playing together and they want to go to practice that next day (after a win).
“Teams that do the little things well get to go to practice the next day.”
Source: ETHS Sports Information