The ability to play to your strengths is what separates the basketball teams who see their seasons end in early March — and those who Survive And Advance.

And Jaheim Holden definitely played to his strengths Friday night in the championship game of the Class 4A Regional tournament at Glenbrook South.

Three-pointers and layups — among the many things Holden contributes for Evanston — led to a career-high 29 points for the junior guard as the Wildkits eliminated Notre Dame 66-51.

Evanston, now 23-5, will join regional champions Loyola Academy, New Trier and Niles North at next week’s Maine East Sectional. The top-seeded Kits will play Loyola Tuesday at 7 p.m. in a rematch of a regular season contest won by Evanston by a 43-40 margin.

Holden had more opportunities in transition in 4 quarters Friday than he’s had in a month’s worth of games, and the slick junior guard knew how to make the most of those opportunities.

Jaylin Gibson of Evanston beats Notre Dame’s 6-9 Dusan Mahorcic to a loose ball.

Leading  just 28-26 at halftime, the Wildkits scored 19 points in the third quarter — almost all of them on transition plays — and ran away from the No. 9 seeded Dons. Holden finished with 29 points on 12-of-18 shooting from the field and also contributed 4 steals for the winners.

Ryan Bost (20 points, 3 steals), Blake Peters (6 points,  5 rebounds, 4 steals) and Lance Jones (8 points, 4 steals) applied the double-team pressure on the ball in the second half that led to successful finishes by Holden at the other end.

Evanston’s ability to kick-start the running game came after a sometimes frustrating first two quarters. The Dons (13-15) threw the kitchen sink of defenses at the No. 1 seed in the first half, resorting to a man-to-man, 1-3-1 zone, 2-3 zone, a triangle and 2 and a box and 1 on alternating possessions. Only a 30-foot buzzer beater by Holden allowed the Wildkits to take a lead into the halftime lockerroom.

What happened next was R-rated, at least according to Holden.

“In the lockerroom, Coach (Mike) Ellis told us to get that mother-effing ball (in double team traps) and start playing with a sense of urgency and passion,” Holden said after joining in the traditional net-cutting ritual of champions. “We turned our intensity up, and just went on from there.

“This season has been a process for us and we’ve gotten to know our strengths over time. We played to our strengths tonight. I got a lot of good looks early (sinking his first 5 shots in the first quarter), and I was just feeling it in transition.

“I just have to lead in any way possible to help the team. I have a chip on my shoulder from last year (supersectional loss). Coach has told us three juniors (Holden, Jones, Bost) back from that team that we’ll be the reason we go farther as a team, or fall short of last year.  So winning today was an accomplishment, but we’re far from finished. The goal we have is to get Downstate.”

Evanston was credited with 18 steals among the 23 turnovers by the Dons. Post defenders Matt Hall and Jaylin Gibson managed to keep Notre Dame’s 6-foot-9 standout Dusan Mahorcic (28 points, 17 rebounds) from beating them all by himself, and freshman guard Anthony Sayles — an Evanston resident — was a non-factor with as many points as turnovers (7) after stashing in 30 points in an earlier tournament win over Maine West.

Bost and Jones took turns making sure that Sayles never got into an offensive flow.

“We had to have those transition points tonight, because it was such a tall order playing against them and their big guy in the half-court,” Ellis pointed out. “I thought Matt and Jaylin both stepped up and did a tremendous job in the second half against Mahorcic. Because of them, Notre Dame didn’t have the safety net of just being able to throw it into him, and their guards had to create more out in front. And our guards did a good job of smelling their opportunities (on defense) and taking advantage.

Lance Jones soars to the hoop for Evanston with a slight bump from Notre Dame defender Anthony Sayles.

“Blake had a couple of big steals for us in that third quarter and I thought they all had their moments tonight. I think there was some pride on the line for our guys going up against an Evanston guard (Sayles) and that was a motivating factor for them. We wanted him to come to Evanston, but I guess it just wasn’t in the cards.

“I thought the key to the game tonight was for us to play hard from start to finish. We scored one-third of our points in transition and one-third at the free throw line, and any time you can do that, that’s about as good as it can get.”

ETHS outscored the Dons 19-11 in the third period, but two quick buckets by Mahorcic cut the deficit to 48-41 on the Dons’ first two possessions.  Bost stepped into the spotlight at that point, as his steal set up a Jones layup and Ryan scored on a putback and a 3-point shot to put the game out of reach.

In other regional championship contests Friday night, Loyola stymied Maine South 48-29 on the Hawks’ home court; New Trier defeated Prospect 53-35; and Niles North ousted St. Viator 68-60.

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.

Dennis Mahoney

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

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