Evanston basketball coach Mike Ellis ought to at least consider adding Grant Shouse to his Christmas card list — if not this year, then for next year.
The decision by his counterpart from University Heights Academy (Hopkinsville, Ky.) to switch to a 1-2-2 zone defense in the second quarter Sunday helped the Wildkits pull the trigger on a school record 17 3-point baskets in the consolation championship game of the King of the Bluegrass Tournament in Fairdale, Kentucky.
Evanston scored a season-high 95 points on its way to a 95-63 romp, its third straight at the tournament following an opening round loss. The Wildkits, now 12-2 overall, will take a couple of days off before taking on their next challenge at the Centralia Holiday Tournament that starts on Friday. The field there includes defending Class 4A state champion Belleville West.
Seven different players fired in buckets from 3-point range as the Kits connected on a sizzling 53 percent (17-of-32) overall. Blake Peters (7), all-tournament selection Ryan Bost (3) and Jaheim Holden (3) led the barrage that also included treys by Lance Jones, Itchy Holden, Ben Tarpey and DeVaughn Bell.
Peters paced the winners with 23 points, with teammates Holden (17), Jones (17) and Bost (11) also reaching double figures in a balanced effort that showed the out-of-state crowd just how dangerous Evanston can be against any kind of a zone alignment.
University Heights actually led 21-17 after playing nothing but man-to-man in the first period and limiting ETHS to just one 3-pointer. But the Kits caught fire against a zone in the second quarter and never looked back, even when the losers switched back to a man-to-man.
“I’ve never coached a team that’s this explosive,” Ellis said. “We have 4 or 5 guys who are capable of scoring 30 points on a given night.
“We didn’t have the greatest start to the game and after the first quarter the only thing I sensed was how do we turn this around? We didn’t know how big the challenge would become at that point. In a way it was backwards, because you rarely see teams play a zone against a team of all guards like ours. But I think we’re a hard team to guard with a man-to-man or a zone, and we got into a good rhythm. We had good shot selection and I’m happy as long as we’re finding the open man and taking good shots like that.”
The Wildkits tossed in 7 3-point field goals in the second period, and came on strong with a trio of treys at the end of the quarter to seize a 40-36 lead in spite of 15 points from Blazers’ guard Ky Ky Tandy, the favorite to win the Mr. Basketball award this year in the state of Kentucky.
A rare 7-point possession — with Jones tallying all of those points — helped ETHS start to pull away early in the third quarter. Jones was fouled going to the basket, and as he stood ready to shoot two free throws, the officials whistled Tandy for a technical foul.
Jones swished all 4 free throws, then added a deep 3 to push the lead to 54-39 and Evanston never looked back.
The triumph marked the third in a row for the Wildkits, who bowed to eventual tourney champion Brooklyn (New York) South Shore 87-76 in the opener, then defeated South Miami of Florida (83-70) and Madison Central of Kentucky (72-63) in the next two rounds.
Bost netted 69 points in 4 tourney games and showed leadership qualities could catch the eye of a potential college recruiter, too.
“Ryan was very focused and dialed in at both ends of the floor down here,” Ellis praised. “He demonstrated the leadership qualities that can take our team to another level. He was really good when it comes to thinking the game. He didn’t pick up any college offers, but hopefully those college coaches are highlighting his name as a guy they’ll be following the rest of the season.
“We felt like we could have been in the championship game after giving the eventual champs (South Shore) all that they could handle in the first game. We had the lead in the fourth quarter but we didn’t finish strong (turning the ball over 6 times in the final period). South Shore’s the best team we’ve played all year. They’ve got 4 or 5 Division I players and they’ve got all the pieces. We were fortunate to learn some lessons just playing good competition like that.”
Bost’s 27 points paced ETHS in the loss. Against South Miami, Jones broke loose for a game-high 26 points to lead four Wildkits in double figures.
In the consolation semifinals against Madison Central on Saturday, Jaheim Holden’s all-around effort included 25 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists. The Kentucky team was still in contention, trailing 46-42 after three quarters, but Holden scored on a drive and a 3-point shot, then pulled off a steal that led to a fast-break lay-in for Jones at the other end.
Evanston was able to maintain a double-digit advantage through most of the fourth quarter as Jones poured in 10 points in the period. He finished with 14.
“I want to compliment our entire team, because every player has a role and the others (non-starters) were outstanding this week, too,” Ellis said. “Now we’re looking forward to turning the page and seeing if we can play better down at Centralia this year. We want to make sure we don’t trip up like we did in the first game here.”