Shootout events have brought out the best in Evanston’s basketball program ever since the days when Nojel Eastern was first identified as a potential Division I college prospect.
And the current edition of the Wildkits is thriving in the spotlight, too.
Coach Mike Ellis’ squad scored another impressive win Sunday at the Team Rose Shootout at Mount Carmel High School, knocking off three-time defending Class 2A state champion Chicago Orr by a 67-60 margin for their 8th win in a row.
The victory came just 8 days after a shootout stifling of Niles Notre Dame, and both Notre Dame and Orr could wind up in the Final Four in Peoria in their respective classes in March.
Evanston’s approach to those invitation-only events could be boiled down to a T-shirt that says “Respect Everyone, Fear No One.” Nothing about playing on a bigger stage appears to have a negative impact on the Kits no matter what venue they’re in.
Sunday, Blake Peters led four Wildkits in double figures with 19 points and the Wildkits survived their first significant foul trouble of the season by sinking 10-of-14 attempts at the free throw line in the fourth quarter to hold off the talented Spartans.
“There’s not a game we play where we don’t expect to win,” said Peters, a junior. “That’s the mindset we have. And we’re not afraid of the CPS (Chicago Public Schools) teams. We like the up and down pace of the game against them and we do a lot of that in practice every day against fast guards. It’s more fun than playing against some of the suburban teams that run a 20-pass offense with a lot of back screens and things like that.”
“We gathered ourselves at the end and finished strong,” said Ellis, who has guided ETHS to an 8-0 start despite the fact that only Peters and Jaylin Gibson are returning starters from last year’s state runnerup squad. “Our guys are comfortable in that tempo, in getting up and down the floor like that. Orr was obviously up against it with the schedule (3rd game in 3 days) and we did a good job of locking in and making winning plays.
“I like the fact that our guys respect every team we play. They know people are measuring themselves against us (after two straight trips to the Class 4A Final Four) and they understand about respecting their opponents. They also don’t fear anyone, and that makes us more comfortable against tough opponents. All of the games are big games to us.”
After spotting the Spartans the first 2 baskets of the contest, Evanston built a double digit lead in the third quarter but saw it slip away when both Gibson (11 points, 8 rebounds) and Daeshawn Hemphill (7 points, 5 rebounds) both went to the bench with their fourth personal fouls in a 25-second span.
With both starters on the sidelines, the Kits still closed out the third quarter strong with a 7-0 burst that featured 5 points by Peters and a steal and a layup for Elijah Bull (season-high 15 points, 5 assists, 4 steals).
Orr trailed 52-39 entering the fourth quarter but still had enough legs to challenge despite making a shootout appearance (and winning in two overtimes) in downstate Edwardsville the previous night.
ETHS kept the lead at 59-52 with 2 minutes, 50 seconds left in the fourth quarter when both Gibson and Hemphill were unleashed from the bench. Gibson cashed in on 4-of-6 from the free throw line, and Isaiah Holden (10 points), Hemphill and Peters also converted free throws to keep Orr from getting any closer than 5 points the rest of the way.
“When you’re in foul trouble like that, it’s really no fun because you always have to watch what you’re doing,” admitted Gibson. “You really have to be aware of how you’re doing every single thing.
“On the free throws, the coaches are always saying shoot the same way with the same form every time, and that’s what I try to do. Change anything and that’s when you’ll start to mess up. I always try to shoot with the same form.
“Shootouts are big games for us because you never know what can happen. We always try to just play hard and stick together as a team. This team is very unselfish, and we like to help each other out. I didn’t expect us to be undefeated at this point, but now we have to keep this run going and keep sticking together.”
Orr, now 4-3 on the season, also had four players in double figures led by Bryce Hall with 16 points and Norvell Meadows with 13.
The Wildkits close out the 2019 portion of the schedule with a road game at Maine South next Friday, and have earned the top seed for the Centralia Holiday Tournament. ETHS opens tourney play on Dec. 26 against Cahokia, with the semifinals and finals of the downstate tourney set for Dec. 28.