PEORIA — There’s no feeling quite like winning the last game of your high school basketball season.
Evanston’s young Wildkits shared that unique experience here Saturday night at the Class 4A Illinois High School Association state tournament.
Coach Mike Ellis’ team relied on juniors who played like seniors; freshmen who played like seniors; and a senior, Matt Hall, who saved his best for last.
Evanston bounced back from a Friday night semifinal loss to defending state champion Whitney Young and clipped Elgin Larkin by a 61-49 margin to claim the 3rd place trophy. That effort matched the 3rd place finish by the last ETHS team to reach the state finals back in 2008.
The Kits finished 27-6, just one win shy of last year’s 28-4 squad in what should have been a rebuilding year. Instead, the new Wildkits matured at a rapid rate as the season progressed, and so did the returning veterans — Hall and juniors Ryan Bost, Lance Jones and Jaheim Holden.
“Their maturity level and selflessness are the No. 1 reason we’re here,” said Ellis in Saturday’s post-game press conference. “They were all eager to learn from Day 1. They played older than they are, they took on the responsibility to get better, and they didn’t make excuses. They applied the lessons they learned this year — they weren’t going to wait until next year.
“We weren’t playing in the game we wanted to be playing in (state championship game) but we still wanted to play to win tonight. Only two teams (per class) get to finish the season with a win and they allowed me to share that experience with them for the first time tonight.”
The 6-foot-7 Hall, the only senior starter, rose to the occasion on the biggest stage of his playing career. He recorded double-doubles (points and rebounds) in both state final appearances after pulling off that feat only one other time this season. The soft-spoken big man entered tournament play averaging just 3.6 points and 4.3 rebounds and, despite starting every game, sometimes saw his minutes on-court limited when the Wildkits decided to go with even smaller lineups for matchup purposes.
He played big in the middle when Evanston needed him most, racking up career highs in points (14) and rebounds (16) against Larkin while also contributing 10 points and 11 boards in a 62-56 loss to Whitney Young.
“I can’t say enough about Matt Hall and his performance today against a really skilled and talented team (plus 6-10 Jalen Shaw),” said Ellis, who guided Peoria Richwoods to a pair of state runner-up finishes in previous trips to State. “He kinda put us on his back, and he was the difference maker in setting the tone for our victory. All year long people talked about our guards, guards, guards and about how young we were, but tonight it was a senior post player who set the tone for us.
“All year he’s bought into everything we’ve done and he’s never complained. He’s always had a positive attitude. It’s not a glamour position to play defense and rebound and I felt like we owed it to him (to keep him in the starting lineup on a weekly basis). He did a phenomenal job for us this year. He understood that a lot of times he wasn’t playing because of the matchups we had against different teams, and he understood that his job was to check (defend) the bigger players. He didn’t have anyone he could really bang against in practice, but he accepted his role. You have to give him all the credit in the world for sticking with it like he did.”
Hall and Jones (15 points) did most of the offensive damage for ETHS, which bounced back from a poor second half performance against Young and dominated Larkin after the Royals had pulled within 32-27 midway through the third quarter Saturday.
The Wildkits outscored the losers 13-2 over the last 4 minutes of that period and owned a double digit lead the rest of the way.
Hall said the sense of urgency, with the realization that this was the last week of his high school career, grew strong for him as the trip to Peoria materialized following a supersectional triumph over Lake Zurich.
“I didn’t want to go out my senior season and not play to my full potential,” he explained. “I wanted to do everything I could to help my teammates win. Tonight I just went up strong and tried to get into a rhythm. I know these guys (teammates) will probably be down here again next year and I wanted to play the best I could.
“Not too many players can say they won their last varsity game, and it feels good. From the start of the year I could see our youth and some of them were trying to play for their stats. But as the season went on, the freshmen started playing like seniors and the juniors stepped up, too. By the end of the season we came together as a family and they did a great job of wanting to win and staying in the moment. I think that says a lot about their character, and also how much they cared about the seniors (Hall, Harry Porter, Semaje Jefferson). They wanted to win for us.”
Jones returned the compliment after the season finale.
“I thought Matt did a tremendous job of leadership for us this year,” said the junior guard. “He was always encouraging everyone and he never gets down on people. I thought he played tremendous the last 2 games.”
Hall’s hustle helped get the 6-10 Shaw in early foul trouble and the Royals’ center didn’t play at all in the second quarter. Shaw still finished with 19 points and 7 rebounds, and Anthony Lynch led Larkin with 21 points as they concluded a 24-10 season.
“We executed a lot better tonight,” noted Ellis. “We saw the court better and we made plays at both ends of the floor. I thought it was a well-balanced performance. We talked a lot about making plays to ignite our fast break and transition instead of having to play 5-on-5 against a 6-10 guy. We set the tone finishing out the second quarter (leading 24-18 at the intermission) and picked it up again for the entire second half.”
Evanston connected on 53 percent (25-of-47) field goal attempts against Larkin as Bost contributed 9 points and Holden added 8 for the winners. Hall converted 7-of-8 shots from the floor.
The Kits’ center also drew notice from Young head coach Tyrone Slaughter after the Dolphins knocked ETHS out of the running for the state championship in Friday’s 62-56 contest. Evanston led 27-20 at halftime, but the veteran Dolphins, with 3 starters returning from the team that beat ETHS in last year’s supersectional, turned in an almost flawless performance in the final quarter.
Hall played in Slaughter’s Meanstreets AAU summer program before coming to Evanston.
“I’ve been watching Matt Hall play for 4 years and that’s the best I’ve ever seen him perform,” said the Young coach. “We had to make an adjustment in the second half to pay more attention to him and find him every time they had the ball.
“We decided to make things exciting for the fans and the IHSA tonight and this is consistent with what we’ve done throughout the state playoffs. We’ve had to come from behind more than once, but the resilience of these guys is what we stake our claim to.”
Evanston freshman Blake Peters poured in a career-high 23 points, including 5-of-7 shooting from 3-point range, but it wasn’t enough for the losers to overcome a combined 5-of-29 showing by Jones and Holden.
Young, which lost the title game to Belleville West in overtime, was paced by Javon Freeman’s 25 points.
“I’ve seen a lot of freshmen who think they can make every shot, but Blake backs it up more than the others do,” Ellis said. “It’s easy to see that tonight’s game was a tale of two halves. The first half, we were the more aggressive team and we were able to attack the basket and rebound with them. But Whitney Young stepped it up a level in the second half and set the tone for a more intense brand of basketball. They were really locked in.”
Evanston’s journey to the Final Four helped the returning players escape the large shadow cast by last year’s star-studded squad, and the Wildkits earned their way to Peoria by sharing the championship in the toughest conference in the state of Illinois (four teams in the Central Suburban League South division won at least 20 games) and then capturing the title in the toughest sectional tournament field in Class 4A.
“We had more Division 1 players last year, more talent,” Ellis acknowledged. “But that’s what makes this season so much more special. Our guys weren’t on any All-State ballots, but look how well they played all year. They weren’t in it for the press clippings or for their own stats.
“This might be the most satisfying season I’ve ever had as a coach. They developed as players, they developed as people, and I couldn’t think of a better group to be around.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.