It took more than three quarters in Monday’s season opener for Evanston’s basketball team to play the kind of defense that head coach Mike Ellis wants to see on a regular basis.
But the Wildkits had the answers in the fourth quarter, limiting Highland Park to just 3 points in the last 3 minutes of a 61-58 victory in the first round of the St. Viator Thanksgiving Tournament.
ETHS freshman Elijah Bull forced two key turnovers down the stretch and Highland Park’s Noah Shutan missed a 3-point shot at the buzzer as the Kits held on in their season debut. Lance Jones recorded a game-high 21 points and added 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals to help the winners overcome a miserable 2-for-24 shooting performance from 3-point range.
Highland Park, a team which never turns down a 3-point attempt, connected on 11-of-26 tries from beyond the arc led by Ziv Tal’s 21 points.
“I’d say this was a below average start for us, but we’re not going to give back a win,” said Ellis. “I didn’t like our defense because we had too many breakdowns because of miscommunication. We need to play smarter and stronger, but with so many new guys out there for the first time, this wasn’t totally unexpected.
“We picked it up a little bit on defense in the fourth quarter because there was a little desperation on our part. We need to start games with that same kind of mentality. We finally got three consecutive stops there in the fourth quarter and that’s what won it for us. Those stops led to free throws and layups at the other end, and on a night where you’re not shooting well, it’s even more important to get stops like that.”
Evanston trailed 53-48 midway through the fourth quarter before applying the defensive clamps. The Giants turned the ball over 5 times in the final period and missed 4 of their last 5 field goal attempts with the game on the line.
Bull was an unsung hero for his defensive effort, along with junior Ryan Bost. Ellis turned to three freshman on the court at the same time — Bull, Blake Peters and Isaiah Holden — in the final minutes and might do it again Tuesday night against Prospect.
“As I’ve said before, in practice you can’t tell who’s a freshman and who’s a junior or senior,” said the veteran coach. “I don’t care what the ages are, we’re going to go with the best matchups that play to our strengths and those guys are among our best players.”
A pair of drives by Jones climaxed a 6-0 run that brought the Kits from a 55-51 deficit to a 57-55 lead. And after Tal finally missed a 3-point shot, Jaheim Holden (16 points, 7 rebounds) grabbed the misfire and went the length of the floor for a layup to make it 59-55.
After a trey by Tal, Jones converted both ends of a bonus situation at the free throw after Bull deflected a pass to him at midcourt. Those two free throws with 25 seconds left in regulation were the margin of victory.
“I thought Lance Jones was really solid for us tonight,” praised Ellis. “We don’t win this game tonight without him or Jaheim or Ryan. Ryan was a factor even though it won’t show up in his stats. He picked his game up in the second half, and when he picked up his intensity, that’s what allowed us to get some stops.
“Our 3-pointers tonight weren’t bad shots, they just weren’t falling. We need to practice and practice those more. We had a lot of good looks and I won’t tell them not to take those shots.”
The Wildkits, the defending tournament champions, play Prospect Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the second round.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director or ETHS.