The memory that lingers for Nojel Eastern from his sophomore basketball season is the sight of Evanston’s seniors in tears after a season-ending loss to Lake Forest.
That’s a sight Eastern doesn’t want to see again. And the ETHS junior delivered in the clutch again and again Friday night to keep the Wildkit season alive at the Class 4A Warren Regional tournament.
Eastern poured in a game-high 22 points, including 9 in the fourth quarter, as Evanston eliminated No. 8 seed Niles North 57-50 in the regional title game. The victory marked Evanston’s third straight regional crown, and fourth in five years.
Now 23-5, the top-seeded Kits will play Niles Notre Dame in the semifinals of the Glenbrook South Sectional Tuesday at 7 p.m. Notre Dame advanced with a 52-50 triumph over Loyola Academy. The other sectional semi will pit defending state champion Stevenson against No. 2 seed Deerfield on Wednesday.
As brilliant as Eastern has been at times in his first three seasons wearing a Wildkit uniform, the 6-foot-6 junior hasn’t been called on too many times with the game on the line in the fourth quarter. He sank a pair of field goals and converted 5-of-6 free throw attempts in the final period to help the winners maintain the lead in a taut fourth quarter.
“I haven’t been in big moments like that before, where it’s win or go home,” Eastern said after also contributing 9 rebounds for the winners, despite early foul trouble. “That’s something I’ve been itching for. I had to step up, be a leader and make plays. I’m just glad we pulled it out. We don’t want it to end for the seniors with them crying, like last year.
“Sure, I’d rather win by 30, but the rest of the way will be close games. Niles North played really hard tonight. The referees called everything in the first three quarters, and held their whistles in the fourth quarter, so we just had to maintain our toughness.”
No one could question Eastern’s toughness. He sank 12-of-16 free throws on a night where the rest of Evanston’s players only got to the charity stripe a total of 11 times in the defensive duel.
“We needed every point from Nojel tonight,” said Evanston coach Mike Ellis. “It was great to see him step up and elevate his game like that. He really stepped up late. Being a leader is being vocal, leading by example and recognizing the situations where you have to lead. He stepped up when we needed him most tonight, just like an All-Stater does.”
Bothered by the Vikings’ constant man-to-man pressure, Evanston turned the ball over 19 times and couldn’t shake the losers despite leading 44-34 with 7 minutes remaining in the contest. The Vikings, led by Damaria Franklin (15 points) and Crishawn Cook (11), battled back to within two points twice, at 50-48 and 52-50.
Two free throws by Franklin with 1 minute, 23 seconds left kept North within one possession of the lead. But Eastern had the answer for the Wildkits, flipping in a shot in the lane to restore a 4-point advantage. Tre Marshall sank a pair of bonus free throws and Eastern added a free throw of his own to keep the losers at bay.
Evanston’s ballhandling woes caused Ellis to try just about every guard on the roster at the point position. Seldom-used senior Micquel Roseman helped stem a North run late in the second quarter when he cashed in on a runner in the lane, then stole a rebound and beat the halftime buzzer to ensure a 27-17 Evanston lead.
Marshall and Chris Hamil each netted 9 points for the Kits and Dylan Mulvihill added 6 points and a game-high 13 rebounds.
“I think our depth at the point guard position helped tonight,” Ellis pointed out. “We gave each guard a turn at handling that pressure and they all made mistakes. But we didn’t get down, we kept going forward and made the next play. Niles North’s pressure can wear you down if you only have one point guard, so that’s where our depth came in.”
Depth could also play a role going forward for the Kits, with 6-5 junior Elyjah Williams now available after being sidelined most of the season with a broken foot. Williams, cleared to play just three days ago, played six and a half minutes Friday night and was credited with 4 rebounds.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.