Wait until next year. Evanston’s basketball team couldn’t finish off a fourth quarter comeback and exited Illinois High School Association postseason play Tuesday night with a 68-56 loss to Niles Notre Dame in the semifinals of the Class 4A Glenbrook South Sectional tournament.
The No. 1 seed Wildkits never led in the contest against a Dons team they defeated back in November by 7 points. Notre Dame notched its 8th straight victory and will take a 24-6 record into Friday’s sectional championship game against either Stevenson or Deerfield.
Torched on defense for a whopping 46 points in the paint by the winners, Evanston also shot only 25 percent from the field (8-of-32 ) in the first half. Coach Mike Ellis’ squad finished 23-6 on the season despite 27 points from Nojel Eastern, one of 13 underclassmen on the postseason roster who’ll return for the 2016-17 season for another run at the state’s Final Four.
Evanston’s couldn’t get there this year and now four seniors — Charlie Maxwell, Dylan Mulvihill, Tre Marshall and Micquel Roseman — won’t get another chance.
“Notre Dame has more seniors and they played for their seniors more than we did tonight,” said Eastern. “We didn’t play a complete game tonight, and we really messed up on the defensive side. We missed a ton of layups and we missed free throws, too.
“I missed two big free throws at the end, there, and I think it would have been a lot different (outcome) if we had tied the game there.”
Trailing 47-40 at the start of the fourth quarter, Evanston clawed its way back into contention behind Eastern’s brilliance and an amped-up defense that forced five turnovers in the final period. Eastern poured in his team’s first 10 points and his drive for a bucket with 2 minutes, 42 seconds remaining pulled the Kits to within 55-53.
On Notre Dame’s next possession, Eastern stole the inbound pass and was fouled. But following a Notre Dame timeout Eastern — who came into the game shooting 83 percent from the free throw line — missed two straight attempts.
Eastern was just 8-of-15 at the charity stripe on the night, including a 2-of-7 showing by the exhausted junior standout in the fourth quarter.
Notre Dame’s Anthony D’Avanzo scored a layup at the other end and the Dons put the game out of reach by converting 8 straight free throws in the last two minutes.
“The main reason that our season ended tonight was that we weren’t focused enough,” said ETHS head coach Mike Ellis. “We needed to get stops when the game got tight, and we didn’t get them.
“We gave up 46 points in the paint tonight, and added in their 12 free throws and that accounts for 58 of their 68 points. Those points in the paint were the product of us getting out-coached tonight. I could have done more to prepare them. When another team gets the ball in the paint at will like that against us, we’re getting out-coached.”
The Dons shot 56 percent (27-of-48) from the field overall and prospered with double figure performances from Matt Stritzel (14 points), Lucas Simon (14), Jeameril Wilson (13) and Chris Heinichen (10).
Junior guard Malik Jenkins provided a boost for the Kits with 10 of his 11 points coming in the third quarter to help keep Evanston within striking distance of the fourth-seeded Dons.
“The first time we played Notre Dame, we executed what the coaches told us to do,” said a somber Jenkins. “Tonight the game plan was to keep them under 50 points and not let them get paint touches. Instead, we did the opposite. We needed to listen to the coaches and be more coachable tonight. I can’t explain what happened to us the last few games.”
Evanston dropped four of its last six games and Tuesday’s loss marked only the fifth time this season they’ve surrendered more than 60 points.
“On some plays Notre Dame just put in more effort than we did. They were better prepared to play harder and play smarter,” Ellis said. “I think it would have been a different game if we had played better in the first half. We had too many mental mistakes. We had 5 or 6 misses in transition where we just didn’t finish plays when we had the opportunities. We just threw points away.
“We never did lock down on defense, either. It’s disappointing, especially for the seniors because they’re all such high character, high value players. There’s a lot of disappointment that’s understandable for me and for the other players because we didn’t get it done for those seniors.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.