Just because most of Evanston’s games so far in the 2018-19 high school basketball season have fallen into the blowout category doesn’t mean that the Wildkits have forgotten how to close out a narrow win.

The Wildkits applied the lessons they learned in a multitude of close contests last year Tuesday night at Zion-Benton, converting 26-of-32 free throw attempts to score a ragged 65-58 victory over the Zee-Bees.

Inconsistent play by both squads and inconsistent officiating led to a season-high 32 attempts from the charity stripe for the winners, who managed to offset their season-low 32 percent shooting from the field and improved to 9-1 overall. Coach Mike Ellis’ squad sank 8-of-10 free throw tries in the final 2 minutes, 52 seconds to keep the hosts (6-3) at bay and secure their 5th win in a row.

Evanston scored 9 unanswered points after the Zee-Bees had closed to within 56-53. All of those points, except for a layup by Jaylin Gibson (19 points, 8 rebounds), came at the free throw line.

Lance Jones (16 points, 7 steals) and Blake Peters (12 points) also reached double figures in another balanced effort by the Wildkits.

The non-conference victory came on the eve of the team’s departure to the Louisville area in Kentucky for the first of two straight holiday tournaments that ETHS will participate in. Ellis rewarded his team by cancelling practice on Wednesday — with the caveat that each player come in and make 100 free throws in lieu of a practice session.

“The free throw line is what got our guys into double figures tonight,” Ellis explained. “We were smart enough to keep playing aggressive and to keep attacking the basket. These guys have a history of closing people out and when the money’s on the table, they step up and make the plays to end up winning.

“That third quarter was horrendous for us. We didn’t come out with a purpose. And there were times when we had the opportunity to stretch some big leads and we let them back in the game.  We couldn’t put them away, and we needed every one of those free throws.”

Zion-Benton held the visitors to 11-of-39 shooting from the floor in the last three quarters and, for the most part, kept a Wildkit team that has been known for its explosive scoring outbursts in check.

Ironically, Evanston’s “outburst” started at the free throw line in the latter portion of the second period. ETHS earned a six-point possession after Zion-Benton coach Bob Worthington was whistled for a technical foul after one of his players fouled Jones in the act of shooting.

Jones sank four straight free throws, and Gibson put back his own miss to push Evanston’s lead to 33-22. Gibson’s steal and a subsequent 3-point basket by Itchy Holden helped the visitors seize a 38-25 lead at halftime.

Zion-Benton whittled the lead down to 49-44 by the end of the third quarter, and drew to within 53-51 on an offensive rebound basket by Julian Ramirez. But after the Wildkits missed 3 straight shots, Jaheim Holden found Jones underneath for a lay-in and that’s when the winners began to march to the charity stripe.

Jones sank 10 straight free throws on the night and was 10-of-12 overall, while Gibson swished 6-of-7 tries. As a team, the Wildkits forced 29 turnovers against a Zion-Benton team they might face again in the Class 4A super-sectional.

“Zion-Benton did a good job defensively, and they took us out of our rhythm,” Ellis said. “We haven’t been on the road in awhile this year (most of Evanston’s games have been played on neutral courts) and when you go into another team’s gym, you have to dial in and play as a unit like we did tonight. It’s so much more important to do that on the road.”

Tuesday’s victory marked the beginning of a stretch of potentially 9 games in 12 days for the Wildkits, who will open play at the King of the Bluegrass Holiday Classic in Fairdale (Ky.), a suburb of Louisville, at 6 p.m. Thursday against Brooklyn (N.Y.) South Shore. The New York team is ranked 71st in the country by MaxPreps, is coming off a state runnerup finish in Class AA last year, and is led by 6-foot-9 Isaiah Richards, a Florida International signee.

The tournament in Kentucky is set to conclude on Sunday, leaving ETHS a couple of days rest in between before they journey to the 76th annual Centralia Holiday Tournament in southern Illinois.

“If you said I could pick just one tournament to win, I honestly couldn’t say I’d pick either one,” Ellis confessed about the ambitious schedule.  “The Kentucky tournament was a late addition for us and the schedule just fell into our laps. But I wanted to give all of our players a chance to be seen by the college coaches in that region of the country, to present them with as many opportunities to be seen as possible.

“With so many games we’ll want to use some of them as practices, to try to zero in on 2 or 3 things we want to do well in each game. At the end of those 9 games, whatever our record is, it is. We’ll see what areas we’ve improved in then.”

Dennis Mahoney

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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