Conant’s basketball team was poised to make a comeback in the fourth quarter behind star guard Jimmy Sotos Friday night at the St. Viator Thanksgiving Tournament. But Lance Jones wouldn’t let it happen.
Jones’ clinging man-to-man defense in the last six minutes kept the high-scoring Conant guard from breaking loose and the Wildkits whipped the Cougars 64-45 in a battle of unbeatens that served as a de-facto championship game. Both teams still have one game remaining — ETHS against Prospect and Conant versus St. Viator — in the final round of the round-robin tournament on Saturday.
Coach Mike Ellis’ squad left no doubt about which team was best in the field, however, with another dominant defensive performance while upping their record to 4-0. Jones held Sotos without a basket — he missed his last 6 shots — in that final stretch as the last in a line of defenders the Wildkits employed against him.
Sotos did finish with a game-high 22 points, including an 11-of-12 performance at the free throw line. He only shot 5-of-15 from the field, however, and as a team the highly-regarded Cougars shot just 34 percent (14-of-41).
The trio of sophomores who spent most of last season practicing with the varsity as freshmen — Jones, Ryan Bost and Jaheim Holden — continued to apply the defensive lessons they learned scrimmaging on a daily basis against current varsity teammates like Nojel Eastern and Chris Hamil.
Friday, Jones scored a career-high 15 points to go with 5 assists and 4 steals for the winners. Eastern overcame a sluggish start to net 15 points and added a team-high 10 rebounds and 5 assists.
“I thought our defense was the difference tonight,” Ellis said. “We were very solid with our on-the-ball defense, and our rotations and our help-side defense was solid too. We beat a good team tonight. It wasn’t really any one guy (against Sotos), it was a collection of guys stepping up tonight.
“Lance did a great job when he was on him. My challenge as a coach is to motivate him to be engaged every trip down on the defensive end. I think all of those sophomores are more comfortable now after spending a year trying to guard guys like Nojel and Chris in practice. They know it’s all about playing team basketball and knowing your assignments on both offense and defense.
“They also know if you don’t play defense, you don’t play.”
“Right now I’d give myself a 7 on a scale of 10,” said the sophomore guard when asked to rate his performance so far as a varsity defender. He leads the team in steals with 11 in four games. “Once I started playing against the varsity I knew I had to lock in more on defense because the competition was way better.
“At halftime Coach said you can’t let anybody get past you, and I took that as motivation for the second half.”
Jones made sure Evanston finished the game to match the strong start the Kits had for the first time at the tourney. The winners outscored Conant 20-4 over the first 10 minutes, then settled for a 27-17 halftime advantage.
Eastern, Holden and Malcolm Townsel each scored 5 points in a 17-point outburst in the third period. But the Wildkits only led 48-37 in the fourth quarter when Hamil picked up his fourth personal foul and Bost replaced him in the lineup.
Jones switched over to Sotos and that was the end of the Cougar comeback.
“Our team goal was to hold Sotos and (6-foot-9 sophomore) Ryan Davis to a combined 30 points, so we accomplished that goal,” Ellis added after Davis only contributed 5 points. “We felt we’d have a good chance to win if we could make that happen.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.