It didn’t take long for Evanston’s Elyjah Williams to make an impact Saturday night at the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Class 3A-4A North-South all-star basketball game at Pontiac High School.
The first time he touched the ball, Williams earned an assist when he fed Oswego’s Jaylen Jones for a wide open 3-point shot.
The second time he touched the ball, Williams grabbed a defensive rebound and took the ball the length of the court for a layup.
The third time he touched the ball, Williams swished a 16-foot jump shot.
Williams’ versatility was on display in a matchup of the elite graduating seniors in the state of Illinois, but couldn’t prevent a 114-113 loss for the North squad when the South’s Grant Wolfe (of Effingham) tossed in a buzzer-beating 3-point shot. It marked the fourth victory in the past five years for the South squads in the all-star series that dates back to 1975.
Williams finished with 11 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 blocked shot, 1 steal and didn’t miss any of his five field goal attempts. He even sank his only 3-point attempt of the night. He did, however, go 0-for-2 at the free throw line but wore the same smile on his face that ETHS fans were used to seeing from the affable senior during the Wildkits’ memorable 28-4 season.
“I wish I could’ve made those free throws, but except for that I’m all smiles and excited just to be here,” Williams said. “I even got to play the point a little tonight. I knew I could hang with (compete with) all the guys here and I wasn’t intimidated, not at all. Everyone here was cool.
“When I got in I just tried to push the ball and make something happen. I tried not to be selfish, just tried to have the most fun I possibly could.”
The 6-foot-6 Evanston grad amassed that stat line in just 14 minutes on the court and helped keep the North close after they fell behind 78-68 early in the second half.
His two free throw misses came with the North trailing 106-104 with approximately 5 minutes left in a game that featured two 21-minute halves. The North actually took the lead with under 10 seconds remaining on a steal and layup by Conant’s Jimmy Sotos, before Wolfe’s prayer shot decided the game.
Saturday marked a last opportunity for Williams to claim the spotlight after being overshadowed by All-State teammate Nojel Eastern — who was selected for the IBCA game but chose not to participate — and classmate Chris Hamil, who set the school’s single season record for 3-point baskets.
It was a performance that climaxed an uphill climb for the senior, who missed almost his entire junior year with a broken foot, then was sidelined on the first day of the summer campaign before his senior year with a detached retina injury that kept college coaches from getting a glimpse at the unheralded post player.
Williams earned all-Central Suburban League South division honors as a senior, was named to the all-tournament team at the prestigious Beach Ball Classic tournament in Myrtle Beach (S.C.) along with Eastern, but still somehow flew under the radar when it came to college recruiting.
Head coach Mike Ellis constantly praised his leadership skills in the Wildkit lockerroom and worked hard to find a spot for Williams to continue his cage career. Williams finally landed a scholarship to Fairleigh-Dickinson University in New Jersey, signing his letter-of-intent four weeks ago.
“The first time I even talked to them was after the high school season,” Williams said. “They saw me when I went to play in an AAU tournament in Pittsburgh. I tried to play with a lot of energy, and they said they liked the fact that I was so versatile. I did a workout for them later on and they offered me that same day.
“Before I signed, my last options were either going to a prep school or to Pace University in New York. It was definitely stressful (not receiving offers earlier in the year like most seniors) but I couldn’t let it affect me. I just had to stay faithful and believe that God had a plan for me. I can’t complain, not at all.”
Williams averaged 13 points and 9 rebounds as a senior and is one of four players signed by Fairleigh-Dickinson head coach Greg Herenda, whose team finished 11-19 this past season.
“Elyjah has a chance to be a very special player here at FDU,” Herenda said. “He is a physical player who defends and rebounds the ball exceptionally well. He has been very well-coached, comes from a terrific program at Evanston, and his best days of basketball are ahead of him.”
Williams certainly wouldn’t argue that fact with his next coach.
“I really feel like my game is starting to develop now,” he said. “My versatility is starting to come into play and I feel very comfortable at any spot on the floor. So I’m really excited about the future.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.