Jaheim Holden sank 13 straight free throws in the second half Friday night at sold-out Beardsley Gym, and Evanston’s basketball team needed every single one to knock Niles North out of the Central Suburban League South division race.
The Wildkits scored a 76-72 overtime victory, avenging an earlier loss to the Vikings and remaining on top of the league standings along with rival New Trier. The two teams meet in two weeks at ETHS.
Holden’s marksmanship at the free throw line, including a 6-of-6 showing in the overtime period, led to a team-high 24 points for the winners. Evanston, now 17-4 overall, also got 22 points from Lance Jones and 19 from Ryan Bost. Niles North (20-3, 5-3) rallied in the second half behind Damaria Franklin (32 points) and Dravon Clayborn (22 points).
Holden, who led the Wildkits in free throw shooting last year, is currently converting free throws at a team-best 77 percent clip and didn’t hurt his average Friday, sinking 16-of-18 attempts overall. He and Jones both converted a pair of bonus tries in the last 35 seconds of the OT to account for the final margin after Niles North had tied the game with 59 seconds left.
Franklin’s 3-pointer with 6 seconds left in regulation brought the visitors back from a 9-point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter, but the Vikings picked the wrong ETHS guard to foul with the game on the line.
“We’ve talked a lot with Jaheim over the last couple of weeks about being more aggressive and getting to the free throw line more,” said Evanston coach Mike Ellis. “He’s crafty with the basketball, and getting to the basket is a big part of his game. He made the right plays at the right moment for us tonight.
Evanston junior guard Ryan Bost (24) turns the corner against Niles North defender Damaria Franklin (13).
“None of those three juniors (Holden, Jones, Bost) played well the first time against Niles North, and they let that game get away from us there. So we challenged them, and they really stepped up tonight. Ryan was very solid tonight and gave us much better leadership. For us to take our game to the next level, it will come down to those three juniors and their leadership.”
“Honestly, I’d have to say that this is our biggest win of the season,” Holden said. “We knocked them out of the conference race and we played tough from start to finish tonight.
“Making free throws is part of your mental toughness, and we’re tougher now than we were the last time we played them. I played my worst game of the year last time because I didn’t come out aggressive enough. I adjusted to the way they were guarding me and just went from there. I was just in the moment (at the charity stripe). I had to do it for my teammates, I couldn’t let them down.
“After the New Trier game coach told me I had to be more aggressive and go strong to the hole, not just flip shots up there. He knew if I did that it would make our team better, and the more everyone plays to their strength, the better the team is.”
Evanston limited the high-scoring Vikings to just 34 points over the first three quarters, and Franklin was quiet with just 8 points over that stretch. He exploded for 18 points in the fourth quarter, pulling the visitors into a 66-66 tie with his late bucket from long range.
In the overtime, Franklin scored in transition for a 72-72 deadlock and had a chance to give North the lead. But he missed the subsequent free throw with 59 seconds on the clock, and neither Jones nor Holden missed at the other end.
“I’m just thankful I had the ability to make all of those free throws,” Holden said. “I work on them every day in practice and I’m grateful for the drills we do every single day, because they prepared me for that situation.”
“When we get a two-possession lead, we know we’re good enough at the line to take our time and spread things out,” added Ellis. “We have a lot of confidence that our guys can make free throws.
“I thought our toughness overcame whatever mental lapses we had tonight with that double digit lead. What we always say is that players play — but tough players win.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.