There must have been an identity thief lurking somewhere in the ancient aisles of the Dawg Pound Tuesday night at the Class 4A Waukegan Sectional basketball tournament.
How else could you explain those imposters wearing Evanston uniforms and allowing a layup drill, especially considering how it was stingy defense that allowed the Wildkits to earn the No. 1 seed for the sectional in the first place?
Leading just 29-28 at halftime, ETHS head coach Mike Ellis didn’t need to consult Lifelock. The Kits allowed just two field goals by Loyola Academy in the entire second half and advanced to the sectional championship game with a 71-45 conquest of the fourth-seeded Ramblers.
Now 27-3 overall, Evanston will meet either host Waukegan or No. 2 seed Notre Dame in the title contest at 7 p.m. Friday. Double figure performances from seniors Nojel Eastern (17 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 blocks), Malcolm Townsel (16 points, 5 rebounds) and Chris Hamil (12 points) overshadowed a less-than-stellar defensive effort in the first half and kept Evanston’s season alive.
Loyola exited with a 22-9 record after 6-foot-3 post player Julian DeGuzman scored layup-after-layup in a 16-point first half, then only tacked on three more free throws in the second half. The losers connected on just 2-of-16 field goal attempts in the second half.
“Loyola put on a clinic in the first half,” said Ellis only partly tongue-in-cheek, “and I took notes and we made adjustments at halftime. There was no Knute Rockne speech to turn things around. I just told them they had to find a way to get back to playing Evanston basketball. The guys all understood that this isn’t who they are, and they were able to reverse things in the second half.
“We had to grind out games against Niles West and Deerfield (in the regional tournament) and Loyola is the best of them all when it comes to grinding it out. You have to work and play well together to beat a team like that. Our will was just stronger in the second half than it was in the first half. Early on they got some unguarded shots against us, and we played bad transition defense and gave them some layups. But in the second half we guarded every shot. That was why we turned it around.”
“I wasn’t really too worried at halftime, because I knew we’d focus in,” said Townsel, who sank 7-of-9 shots from the field. “We didn’t want this to be our last game. We came out and played a lot better as a team and focused on what the coaches wanted us to do. We wanted to be back at practice tomorrow — and back here on Friday.”
Evanston scored 12 straight points to open the second half, and Hamil contributed a pair of 3-point baskets during that surge that secured the school single season record for triples for the sharpshooting senior. The Ramblers didn’t score a bucket until leading scorer Ramar Evans (5 points) flipped in a scoop shot with 1:42 left in the quarter.
Eastern dominated the fourth quarter underneath, displaying the versatility that allows the Wildkits to post him up against smaller teams that try to play man-to-man defense against him. He notched 9 points in the period to close out the win.
“Nojel was spectacular out of the post tonight, and Friday night he might be spectacular out at the point,” Ellis noted. “It’s a great security blanket to have someone who gives us as many options as Nojel does. If you put a smaller guy on him, he’ll take you down to the post. Elyjah Williams had a little bit of an off night, so we used Nojel down low to initiate our offense.”
Evanston’s offense sizzled with 62 percent (26-of-42) shooting, with 18 assists credited on those 26 baskets
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.