There are defensive stops and there are desperation stops, and without Lance Jones on the floor Tuesday night at the Class 4A supersectional game at Chicago State University, Evanston’s basketball team didn’t get enough of either.
Missing a key piece of their defense, the Wildkits couldn’t keep Whitney Young’s guards out of the paint and fell one game short of a trip to the Illinois High School Association Final Four with a season-ending 67-59 defeat. Evanston finished a memorable season with a 28-4 won-loss record and Young will advance to the state semifinals Friday in Peoria with a 25-7 mark.
Those “desperation” stops — in double-team situations with ETHS trailing at the start of the fourth quarter — helped Evanston climb back to a 52-52 tie with 5 minutes, 22 seconds left on a 3-point basket by senior Chris Hamil.
But it was all downhill after that for a Wildkit team that had hoped to add to the program’s legacy by matching the state championship that Evanston won back in 1968. Young converted 9-of-11 free throw attempts down the stretch (and 20-of-25 for the game) to secure the win.
A brilliant performance by the winningest player in school history, senior Nojel Eastern, was no consolation for the losers.
Eastern went out in a blaze of glory with a game-high 31 points to go with his 10 rebounds and 6 steals. But except for sophomore Jaheim Holden’s 10 points, the Kits couldn’t find much offense from anyone else.
Jones suffered a bruised tailbone in the fourth quarter of the sectional championship game at Waukegan last Friday and could only play 9 minutes, all in the first half. Dolphin guards Javon Freeman (23 points) and Xavier Castaneda (20) abused the remaining ETHS defenders, almost at will, and All-Area selection Lucas Williamson stashed in 17 points for the city squad.
“Lance just couldn’t go tonight, and I think we could have matched up a little better against Castaneda with Lance in there. Young took advantage of that,” said a somber Evanston coach, Mike Ellis. “We missed his on-the-ball defense. The ball was in the paint way too much tonight because of their penetration.
Not having Lance in there was definitely a factor.
“Whitney Young did a solid job defensively and they were very aggressive offensively. They out-toughed us tonight. You have to give them credit for the way they just kept coming at us in the second half.”
Young spread the floor over the past 5 minutes after Hamil’s triple concluded a 7-0 run by ETHS. The winners outscored the Kits 15-7 from that point on, with 9 of those points coming at the charity stripe.
“It felt unreal, like a dream that was just shattered,” said Hamil, who mustered only 8 points. “It hurts that it’s over. One of our brothers (Jones) was out and we just couldn’t get the job done.
“When I made that 3 I thought we’d find our rhythm, get up on them and go home winning, but it didn’t happen. Young just outhustled us tonight. We wanted it — but they also wanted it.”
“We fought as a unit, coaches and players, and I couldn’t ask for a better group of people,” added Eastern, who converted 13-of-19 field goal attempts. “We didn’t protect the paint enough and they got a lot of easy layups. They played tougher than us tonight.”
“Nojel didn’t want the season to end tonight, and he showed up dedicated to doing whatever it took tonight,” said Ellis regarding his Purdue-bound star. “You could see his determination and his drive just in his look tonight.
“We just didn’t make enough plays tonight, right from the start. You’re not gonna win giving up 20 points at the free throw line. We did get some desperation stops out of those double teams, and that might work against a bigger team. But they play with 4 or 5 guards at a time and the margin for error was slim at the end. It was feast or famine for us on defense.”
Evanston closed out the first half with a 13-2 run thanks to the individual brilliance of Eastern at both ends of the floor. He stole a pass and scored with 10 seconds remaining for a 33-30 ETHS advantage, and accounted for 11 points during that surge.
The bitter ending overshadowed one of the best seasons in school history. The Wildkits, playing their toughest regular season schedule ever, captured the St. Viator Thanksgiving Tournament championship in their first try, finished runner-up against a field of nationally-ranked teams at the Beach Ball Classic holiday tournament in South Carolina, and repeated as Central Suburban League South division champions.
“We had a good run,” said senior forward Elyjah Williams. “I’m proud of everything we did this year. I can’t be down with the season we had.”
“The character they exhibited all season long, that’s what stands out to me about the season,” added the Wildkit coach. “This team showed a lot of fortitude all season. For them to be one of the last 8 teams still playing is really an accomplishment for all of them.
“The town (of Evanston) was really great and we really felt their support these past 3 weeks. We just feel bad that we couldn’t take them on one more journey (to Peoria).”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.