Improved play wasn’t the only thing Evanston basketball coach Mike Ellis was looking for in Tuesday night’s regular season finale at Vernon Hills. Unselfish play will always rank high on the list of team goals for any Ellis-coached squad, too.
All 12 players who suited up scored at least 2 points as the Wildkits bounced back from their loss to New Trier and routed Vernon Hills 79-45 in a Central Suburban League crossover contest. Freshman Jaylin Gibson (12 points) and senior Harry Porter (11) both scored career-highs in the blowout win.
The victory came after a home loss to New Trier that prevented the Kits from claiming the CSL South division title outright. But Evanston (21-5 overall) did get a share of the crown after the Trevians, in turn, lost to Niles North in a makeup game on Monday.
“What did we get out of tonight’s game?” Ellis asked. “We got a win, and it was good to see the way everyone got into the box score. It was also good to see how everyone was thinking about setting their teammates up and thinking about someone else, before themselves.
“This game gave us a chance to catch our breath (after a regular season loaded with ranked opponents on the schedule). It was good to get one like this because we know we’ll have some more down-to-the-wire games if we hope to get out of the regional. We haven’t had an opportunity to play everybody in many games on our schedule this year.”
Tuesday, Evanston broke out to a 28-8 first quarter advantage and never looked back. A 14-0 run midway through that period allowed Ellis to clear his bench, but that didn’t prevent the margin from reaching 47-24 by halftime. Starters Matt Hall (9 points), Blake Peters (8 points), Jaheim Holden (8 points, 3 steals) and Lance Jones (8 points, 4 rebounds) did all of their damage in that first half and didn’t play over the last two quarters.
Among the backups, Gibson stood out with 12 points, 5 steals and 4 assists. Even 6-foot-4 sophomore Ethan Francis, just promoted to the varsity this week, got in on the scoring in his debut with a putback of a missed 3-point shot in the fourth quarter.
“Vernon Hills is a solid team with some solid guards, and I thought we did a good job taking care of business tonight, like a mature team would,” Ellis praised. “We want to play to our strengths as a team in the postseason and tonight that was what we needed to work on.”
The veteran coach admitted that his squad “backed in” to a share of the conference championship, but also noted that almost no one expected the 2017-18 squad to be a factor in the race after graduation wiped out the roster from a year ago.
“To start out with, with only one starter back we were only predicted to be fourth in the league, and I wouldn’t argue that point,” he said. “And this year I think the league may have been the toughest since I’ve been here. To see them not let others define how good we’d be and take on that initiative was really satisfying. The way they were able to finish (one-possession) games showed their will to win and their competitiveness, and that was the separator for us (in the race).
“It was a solid regular season for us. Now, it’s a matter of not being satisfied, because we want to make a longer (postseason) run than we did last year.”
As the No. 1 seed in the Class 4A Maine East Sectional tournament, the Wildkits will open playoff basketball at the Glenbrook South Regional next Tuesday against either No. 13 Glenbrook South or No. 17 Chicago Taft. Game time is 6 p.m.
Winner of that game will be matched up against either No. 8 Maine West or No. 9 Niles Notre Dame on March 2 in the regional finals.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.