Nojel Eastern wasn’t about to let Maine South end the basketball season for another senior class at Evanston.
Motivated to keep Evanston’s season alive — and motivated by an extended stay on the bench due to foul trouble in the first half — Eastern assumed the role of closer in the fourth quarter Friday night.
The sophomore standout erupted for 11 points in the final period as Evanston captured a Class 4A regional championship with a 58-53 trimming of No. 3 seed Maine South at Beardsley Gym. He didn’t miss a shot in crunch time, going 5-for-5 from the field, after a start he’d rather forget.
Now the Wildkits have an opportunity to record an even bigger win. They’ll take a 20-9 record into next Wednesday’s Class 4A Waukegan Sectional semifinal, where they’ll face No. 2 seed Lake Forest. Lake Forest defeated Highland Park 53-32 Friday night and joined ETHS, Stevenson and Notre Dame in the sectional semis.
Eastern made sure it was Maine South who’d be packing away their jerseys this weekend after finishing 26-4.
“I feel a lot better now than I did in the first half,” admitted Eastern as his teammates gathered to cut down the nets in celebration after beating the Hawks for the second time in three tries. “I couldn’t be on the floor for my teammates much in the first half, but they played as a team and did a great job on offense and on defense without me.
“When I got back in, I just tried to bring more intensity and gave it my all for my teammates and especially the seniors. This is for the seniors. Just like always for us, there’s no I in team.”
Eastern’s length-of-the-court dash for a layup against Maine South’s press with 32 seconds remaining lifted the hosts to a 56-51 advantage, and classmate Malik Jenkins sealed the victory with a pair of bonus free throws with 11 seconds left.
Eastern totaled 15 points and 4 rebounds for the winners, who also got 12 points off the bench from sophomore Jerome Bynum on 4-of-6 sniping from 3-point range. Dylan Mulvihill added 7 points and 10 rebounds, including 6 off the offensive glass.
Maine South post player George Sargeant led all scorers with 23 points, but was only 2-of-5 from the field in the fourth quarter with the game on the line.
“The best part about this team is that they want to win for each other. This is a special group of guys,” said ETHS coach Mike Ellis. “They’re class kids and they’re great teammates. It feels good to be able to practice tomorrow and keep playing.
“What you saw in the fourth quarter tonight was the competitor in Nojel. He hates to lose, and he wasn’t going to be the reason that we lost. In the fourth quarter he said now it’s my time. He just didn’t say to himself, it’s not my game tonight, and he went out and made it HIS game. It was good to see him play with that kind of intensity. He understands when we need him to make plays.
“Jerome Bynum and Chris Hamil (8 points) stepped up and hit some big shots for us. For the most part, we valued every possession tonight. We didn’t turn it over (5 total) and we didn’t force shots. We played smart team basketball.”
Evanston led 32-26 at halftime, but just like during the regular season meeting between the rivals at Beardsley, the Hawks countered with an 8-0 run to open the second half and fought to a 40-40 deadlock by the end of the third period.
“The same thing happened last time, but tonight we didn’t lose our focus,” Eastern explained. “And we came out of it big.”
“I just told them to stay strong when Maine South had that run,” Ellis said. “We knew Maine South wasn’t going to hang their heads because they were down by 6 or 8 points. We have to do a better job of matching other teams’ intensity, but it was good to see our guys pick it up and not fold.”
Source: ETHS Sports Information