Just to remind himself how young and inexperienced his basketball team is, Evanston head coach Mike Ellis took a poll during practice this week to find out just how many varsity players had driver’s licenses.
Only 6 squad members — out of a roster of 17 — raised their hands.
But after struggling for 30 minutes Friday night in Park Ridge, the Wildkits experienced a growth spurt as a team and owned the final 2 minutes in a 61-57 Central Suburban League South division victory over Maine South.
Evanston’s poise under pressure found the visitors scoring 13 points in the final 2 minutes and playing flawless basketball in a gym that has been a house of horrors some years for more experienced teams coached by Ellis.
The balanced effort by the Wildkits, now 5-1 overall and 2-0 in league play, featured 16 points and 5 assists from junior Lance Jones; 14 points from junior Jaheim Holden; 12 points and 3 steals by freshman Blake Peters; and 10 points, 3 rebounds and 2 blocked shots from senior Matt Hall.
Maine South (4-2, 1-1) was paced by Filip Bulatovic and Grant Miller with 15 points apiece.
“When you play against Maine South, you have to lock in and enjoy the monotony, because you have to grind it out possession by possession,” Ellis pointed out. “It all comes down to self-discipline playing against them. A lot of times frustration can settle in because they’re so disciplined and so structured.
Possession by possession, they test your fortitude. Everyone knows that Coach (Tony) Lavorato has one of the best systems in the state. He makes you work hard and prepare hard when it’s time to play him.
“We’re trying to teach these young guys how to play like a state-ranked team, and there was definitely growth tonight. We have made strides, but we also have to be careful not to take a step back.”
The first half was a step backward for Jones, who was whistled for several traveling violations and finished with a team-high 7 turnovers Friday night. But the junior guard also made plays down the stretch that made a big difference.
Jones shot 7-of-11 from the field, a season-best offensive showing. His old-fashioned 3-point play with 1 minute, 46 seconds remaining in regulation snapped a 48-48 tie, and on the Hawks’ next possession, he stole a ball deep on the baseline, dashed the length of the floor and fed Hall for a dunk and a 5-point advantage.
Hall added another layup, assisted by Holden, and both Peters and Holden converted both ends of their bonus free throw opportunities in the final 41 seconds to hold the Hawks at bay.
“Maine South is so well-coached and they execute so well that you’re probably not going to out-execute them,” Ellis said. “If you don’t execute at least alongside of them, you’ll lose. We made better decisions down the stretch, we communicated better on defense and we did the little things to seal that victory.
“Matt Hall did a tremendous job as the only big we have against two 6-7 guys. We gave up 10 offensive rebounds in the first half, and we couldn’t let that keep happening. Matt has an under-appreciated job because he always has to battle for position. He gets good check-outs that allow our guards to step in there and get the rebounds, and he finished well around the basket tonight, too.
“Lance shot really well for us and that was huge, because he’s been struggling.”
Maine South held a slim 28-27 lead at halftime, but the Kits switched to a 2-3 zone for the entire third quarter and outscored the hosts 15-12. South never led after Evanston’s opening possession of the second half.
The Wildkits are back in action on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at the Team Rose Shootout event at Mount Carmel High School. They’ll play Chicago Uplift.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.