Next Tuesday’s game versus Loyola Academy will have sectional tournament seeding implications.
Next Thursday’s game at Glenbrook South could determine the conference championship.
But it wouldn’t be difficult to make the case that Saturday’s 81-79 victory over Bloom at the When Sides Collide shootout was the biggest win of the season — so far — for the Evanston basketball team.
In a matchup of two teams ranked in the top 5 in the latest Class 4A state poll, Evanston got back on track and countered a barrage of Bloom dunks with a fusillade of 3-point baskets in a showdown worthy of a state final game held at Glenbard East High School.
Isaiah Holden and Blake Peters fired in 24 points apiece and Jaylin Gibson added 21 points, including 5 vital free throws in the last 38 seconds, to deliver the Wildkits’ 20th win against 1 defeat. Bloom fell to 19-4 despite fielding a starting lineup that featured five Division I college recruits.
The Wildkits regained their swagger following their first loss of the season, to Zion-Benton, and found their shooting stroke from 3-point range, converting 13-of-26 attempts from beyond the arc.
More important, the winners were back to their fearless approach to the game led by the irrepressible Holden, whose 24 points were a career best. The smallest player on the floor at 5-foot-10, Holden’s dash and daring was the perfect antidote to the dazzling dunks by Bloom’s Division I players like Dante Maddox (Cal State Fullerton), Martice Mitchell (Minnesota), Keshawn Williams (Tulsa), Donovan Newby (Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and Christian Shumate.
Newby led the Blazing Trojans with 24 points and Maddox, son of the Bloom coach, contributed 22. But the day belonged to Holden, a junior guard whose inconsistent play since the Centralia Holiday Tournament has been one reason the Kits have struggled to put together four solid quarters in any game since then.
That all changed on Saturday as the junior was in attack mode, like the rest of his teammates, from the moment they stepped off the team bus.
“Itchy led us today,” said ETHS head coach Mike Ellis. “What we talked about was that we just had to play fearless. You can’t go out and play a team like Bloom with fear. You’re going to end up losing before the ball is even tipped if you do that.
“Itchy really took that to heart. I know he was disappointed in his play in the previous game (5 turnovers in the Friday win over New Trier). The key was that all of our guys played fearless basketball. You could see it in their eyes, they weren’t afraid of Bloom.”
“We didn’t let all their dunks get to us,” said Holden, who sank 9-of-14 field goal attempts and was also credited with a pair of steals. “A dunk is just two points, and every time they dunked we just kept pushing the ball and made sure we ran the floor.
“Bloom is a very tough team, but Coach said if we play together and play through one another, we’d win. I knew I had to give it 100 percent because the last couple of games I’ve played a little too relaxed.
“We were upset when we lost Tuesday because we could have played a thousand times better than we did. We didn’t come out ready to play and we got what we deserved. It was a wakeup call for us. Tonight we did a good job of following the coach’s game plan.”
Bloom’s last lead of the game came early in the second quarter, at 22-20 on a pair of free throws from Newby. Evanston responded with an 8-0 run on 3-point baskets by Rashawn Bost and Peters, and a Gibson power move to the basket, and went on to take a 40-32 lead at the halftime break.
Peters notched 7 points in the third quarter, including another trey that pushed the lead to 61-52 entering the final period. The losers chipped away and pulled within 71-70, but after an ETHS timeout, Peters answered with the biggest bucket of the game, a deep 3 off an assist from Gibson. On the next possession, Gibson found Kyle Wilson for a layup, and then got to the free throw line to convert 5-of-6 chances when the winners went to their spread offense.
The referees — and Maddox — provided one last bit of drama at the final buzzer. Maddox’s 3-point shot at the final buzzer should have ended the game, but the officials mistakenly put 3-10ths of a second back on the clock.
Peters’ inbound pass didn’t touch anyone — it was only Evanston’s second turnover of the quarter — so the Trojans had one more chance under their own basket. But Williams, after taking the inbound pass, couldn’t get off a potential game-tying shot in time.
“This was a huge win for us,” Peters pointed out. “Especially with the way we played on Tuesday. I was embarrassed and so were some of the other guys. That’s not the team we were the entire rest of the season. When we play together like that, when everyone contributes something, we’re the hardest team in the state to stop.
“This is a big win because it came against one of the most powerful and athletic teams in the state. That’s the most talented team we’ve played this year. I thought our focus was similar to the first three quarters of the (Class 4A) state championship game last year. For sure, this is a significant win for us.”
Evanston was only out-rebounded by a 30-26 margin, with Gibson’s 8 caroms topping the winners. Gibson also racked up 9 assists as the Kits shot 29-of-59 from the field, for 49 percent.
“I thought our guys really responded well after that loss,” Ellis added. “They all felt they let the other guys down that night and it was all about us, and how can we play better? They played better tonight.”