No matter how many more games Evanston’s basketball team wins this year, none will be more satisfying than what the Wildkits did to Niles Notre Dame Friday night at the Chicago Elite Classic shootout event.
What looked on paper like a matchup nightmare for Evanston turned into a bad dream for the Dons. The Wildkits led from start to finish for a 62-53 victory in the battle of state-ranked unbeatens.
Evanston’s defense stymied Notre Dame’s three main threats — including Louis Lesmond, who transferred there after playing for Evanston’s state runnerup team last year — and Blake Peters outscored Lesmond 21-15 in their head-to-head matchup.
The Wildkits, now 6-0, held the trio of Lesmond (15 points), 6-foot-7 Troy D’Amico (12) and point guard Anthony Sayles (11) to a combined 38 points. The winners didn’t quite achieve their pre-game goal of holding them to 30, but no one in the ETHS lockerroom was complaining.
“You win with toughness, and this is a testament to their will to win tonight,” said Evanston head coach Mike Ellis about his squad. “They really put in the effort tonight. Above all, our leadership was the best I’ve seen and they all did a great job with their decision-making and with their effort.
“It was great to watch.”
Ellis and his players didn’t appreciate some of the comments attributed to Lesmond once he decided to leave ETHS, and like most Evanston fans, they’re still wondering why the French import was ruled eligible by the Illinois High School Association when his family didn’t move residences. His younger sister Lola still attends ETHS.
And Notre Dame’s sudden interest in playing Evanston — once they knew they’d landed Lesmond — resulted in the shootout matchup Friday night.
Peters made it his personal mission to show his former teammate that the grass isn’t always greener in Niles.
“Coach talked to us all week about playing defense, and he told me that if Louis made a 3, I was coming out. So thanks for leaving me in anyway, Coach,” kidded Peters at the post-game press conference. He limited Lesmond to just 5 field goal attempts over the first 3 quarters, before Lesmond tallied 10 points in the last 3 minutes with the outcome already decided.
“That was the most fun I’ve had in 3 years. My familiarity with his game definitely helped, because I played with him in practice and I kinda knew what spots he was trying to get to.
“That was a great game. This is the most locked in I’ve seen us. That was the first game I marked on our schedule. It was really important to me and the rest of the team, based on a lot of stuff from last year. I haven’t read any articles about Evanston, but I’ve read a lot about other teams (including the Dons). We wanted to come out and show that we’re the real deal.”
Jaylin Gibson (15 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists) and Daeshawn Hemphill (12 points) also reached double figures for the winners. Hemphill played for Notre Dame last year before moving to Evanston.
Notre Dame (5-1) never did deal well with the penetration of guards Itchy Holden (9 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists) and Elijah Bull, and playing with a lead the entire game allowed the Kits to spread the floor, convert 1-on-1 opportunities and milk the clock all at the same time. The margin of victory would have been even greater except for the fact that the winners missed 9 free throws in the final period.
The Kits set the tone right away as Hemphill drove the lane for a score on the first possession, and Holden dashed down the middle on the next possession. Evanston built a first quarter lead of 17-13, and led 25-20 at the halftime intermission.
“The seniors last year taught me a lot,” said Holden, a junior. “They taught me to calm down and not play so fast. They helped me become a better point guard. I don’t like to sound cocky, but when I got a mismatch tonight, my first instinct was to go to the basket. I did what I had to do to get us the lead.”
The Wildkits led 39-32 when Holden pulled off a highlight-reel play in the first minute of the fourth quarter. He blocked a layup attempt by Jason Bergstrom, snatched the ball out of mid-air and started a fast break that resulted in a layup for Gibson at the other end.
Notre Dame never got closer than 6 points again.
“Notre Dame’s top 3 players are tremendous players, very skilled,” Ellis praised. “The big thing for us tonight was that Notre Dame never went on a run because we played so steady. That was great to see.”