CENTRALIA — Sometimes even when you’re attempting to put your best foot forward, you stumble along the way.

Evanston’s basketball team stumbled in the semifinals here Saturday afternoon, then regrouped to score a resounding 74-48 victory over Champaign Central in the third place game at the 76th annual Centralia Holiday Tournament.

At the conclusion of a grueling stretch of 9 games in 12 days, the Wildkits moved to 15-3 entering the New Year. Led by first-team all-tourney selection Lance Jones, Evanston won 3 of 4 games and earned the program’s second best finish in six appearances here while improving on last year’s 5th place showing.

The Wildkits defeated Germantown (Tennessee) 71-36 and host Centralia 64-38 before suffering a defensive meltdown in an 80-68 loss to Alton in the semifinals of the three-day tournament.

ETHS head coach Mike Ellis then found out what his team is made of in a bounce-back win that featured 14 3-point field goals for the winners, only two short of the single game tournament record. Sophomore Blake Peters, chosen second team all-tournament, fired in 20 points to go with 19 from Jaheim Holden and 11 points, 7 assists and 6 steals from Jones.

“We have to lock in and make guarding people and defense our No. 1 priority,” Ellis said. “When we play tough like that, we’re really good.

“This was more our style tonight. I was a little surprised we didn’t value that other (semifinal) game enough — that was unfortunate — but to their credit, they regrouped and came out with more of an effort tonight. They wanted to show each other that I can be there for you when you need me. This game was about us coming together as a team.

“They were disappointed in themselves because they knew they had an opportunity to win a title. It’s really all about us, not our opponents, because in all three of the games we’ve lost, we beat ourselves. We’ve given up 167 points in our last two losses and that shows if we’re not gonna guard, we’re not gonna win. We have to stay focused on the defensive end.”

“We had a bad game and it was very hard to come back tonight,” said Jones, who led the tournament in steals with 15 and tied for 3rd in scoring with 70 points in 4 games. “But we knew what we were capable of. We wanted to play through each other and make our last game of 2018 our best.”

The Southern Illinois University recruit showed fans in that area what to expect in the future from him. Jones became only the second Evanston player ever to be named to the first team all-tournament, matching Wes Wallace’s feat back in 1979. He dropped in 27 points in the loss to Alton, which went on to push defending tournament (and Class 4A state champion) Belleville West to the max in the title game before bowing 62-57.

“Lance had a great tournament and I was happy to see him give his future home crowd a glimpse of what the next 4 years holds,” added Ellis. “He and Itchy Holden (career-high 13 points) were the only ones who showed up against Alton.”

Against Champaign Central, a team with limited offensive firepower, the Wildkits opened up a 38-19 halftime lead and then torched the Maroons in a third quarter that was impressive even for a team that is used to lighting up the scoreboard from 3-point range.

The Kits connected on six 3-point shots in a row — three by Peters and one apiece by Jones, Jaheim Holden and Ryan Bost — and finished the period with 8-of-11 shooting from beyond 18 feet. For the game, the winners sank 14-of-29 3-point tries and fell two treys short of the tourney record of 16 set by Blue Island Eisenhower in 2012 and again in 2013.

Alton, which entered the semifinals with a pedestrian 8-5 won-loss record, never trailed in the semifinal contest. Peters collected 18 points in the defeat, most of them after the outcome was already decided.

“We didn’t show up to play, it’s as simple as that,” Ellis explained. “We were back on our heels right from the start. Alton was the aggressor and the bottom line is that we just came out too casual. We lost every one of the 1-on-1 matchups.”

That defensive letdown was in marked contrast to the first two games. The Wildkits limited Germantown to a total of 10 points in the second half of a “running clock” slaughter rule win in the opener, then came back Friday to limit Centralia to 38 points on its home floor and forced the Orphans into 20 turnovers.

Twenty-one points by Jones and 18 by Peters topped the winners against Germantown. Jaheim Holden mustered only 5 points but contributed a game-high 8 assists to help the Kits shoot 48 percent (27-of-56) from the floor.

“We got all 5 of our team defensive goals tonight because we were dialed in for that first quarter,” Ellis said. “We did have a lot of breakdowns after that. We wanted to put an emphasis on the defensive end of the floor coming into this week because we didn’t do so well in that area in Kentucky.”

Against Centralia, sophomore Jaylin Gibson registered his second career double-double with a career-high 17 points and 12 rebounds to show the way. Jaheim Holden’s 12 points and Jones’ 11 points and 5 steals were next best for ETHS.

Evanston played back-to-back holiday tournaments — in Kentucky and at Centralia — in one of the most ambitious bits of scheduling ever for the program. And the Wildkits won 7 of 9 games over that stretch, starting with a road win at Zion-Benton, even though French import Louis Lesmond was still on the injured list with a bad ankle and Bost was sick all of last week. The gutty senior started every tourney game here but only totaled 16 points in 4 games, well below his season average.

“Ryan played really great in Kentucky and I think the number of games did catch up with him,” Ellis said. “I think the fatigue and the grind got to be too much. But for the other guys, I think our practices are harder than any games and they would have had 5 or 6 practices a week even if we didn’t play in two tournaments. It is a lot of games, but we tried to give them all a break whenever they needed it.”

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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