Evanston’s basketball team built on a series of close victories last year on the way to a state tournament run to Peoria.

The 9th ranked team in Illinois hasn’t had many close encounters this time around. But the Wildkits proved Saturday that they still know how to win down the stretch.

After blowing an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter and falling behind with 3 and a half minutes to play, Evanston responded with a 14-3 run to close out an entertaining 79-69 win at Oak Park-River Forest.

Fans of transition basketball couldn’t ask for more than the display put on by two offenses that couldn’t be stopped most of the time. Evanston, now 23-4, relied on its usual scoring balance by putting 5 players in double figures led by Lance Jones with 20 points and Jaheim Holden with 19.

Oak Park slipped to 14-8 despite a game-high 24 points and 9 rebounds from Anthony Roberts.

“It was a pleasure for me to see us answer our first deficit of the game that way,” said Evanston head coach Mike Ellis. “We were down 1 (66-65) but we didn’t panic and we didn’t point fingers at each other. They stayed united through it, they did a good job of sharing the ball and making the right decisions.

“We got that 14 or 15 point lead (in the third period) and our guys relaxed a little. They thought it was gonna be easy and we had to weather that storm. We got too satisfied and we took some possessions off, and you’ve gotta play a full 32 minutes.

“Close games will happen. It could happen on any game on our schedule. We didn’t want to be in that situation tonight, but I’m confident with the seniors we have (3-year starters). I think their record in close games over the past few years speaks for itself.”

Holden’s drive down the lane and two subsequent free throws quickly restored the lead for the Wildkits, but the Huskies still only trailed by 2 points (69-67) when guard Chase Robinson split a pair of free throws with 101 seconds left in regulation.

Jones dashed downcourt, breaking Oak Park’s pressure, and fed Blake Peters for a 3-point shot from the right corner that got the winners back on track. It was Peters’ only trey of the game and showed the trust his older teammate had in him in a situation where others might have held onto the ball and not gone into an attack mode.

Jones thought his decision was the right one — make or miss.

“My confidence in Blake is shot through the roof. He’s the best sophomore shooter in the state,” declared the senior guard. “I put my trust in him and he followed through and made it. I’ll live with that shot any day from Blake.

“I think a close game is definitely good for us because it lets us know where we stand as a team. We want to know if we can execute down the stretch and stay focused. When we went up 14 we got comfortable and started making lazy plays. That’s what let them come back.”

A tip-in by Gibson (10 points, 6 rebounds) and buckets by Peters (10 points, 7 rebounds) and Jones closed out the non-conference triumph.

Evanston shot 53 percent (30-of-57) from the floor despite converting just 4-of-18 attempts from 3-point range. The Huskies shot even better as a team, 30-of-54 for 56 percent.

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

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