Trailing Maine South by 10 points with two minutes remaining in a basketball game is like falling 20 points behind a normal high school team.
The Hawks usually chew up 45 seconds per possession with their patient offense, and almost never turn the ball over. That’s the daunting task that faced Evanston Wednesday night in the semifinals of the Class 4A Maine South Sectional tournament.
But down 53-43 with 2:03 remaining in the fourth quarter, the resilient Wildkits forced overtime on a 3-point basket by senior guard Nibra White with 15 seconds to play to quiet a stunned home crowd.
That Cinderella comeback, however, didn’t have a fairy tale ending. Maine South pulled out a 74-66 overtime victory with a 7-0 spurt in the extra period and sent Evanston to the sidelines with a final record of 21-9. The Hawks, after defeating Evanston for the third time this season, will take a 25-6 mark into the championship game Friday versus top-seeded Loyola Academy.
Evanston sank a school single game record 15 3-point field goals (in 32 attempts), including 7 in the fourth quarter rally. Senior all-conference guard Will Jones connected on 5-of-8 from 3-point range en route to a team-high 21 points and 10 rebounds, and freshman Nojel Eastern (17 points) and senior Marcus Johnson (12 points) also reached double figures for ETHS.
Maine South advanced behind the 1-2 scoring punch of 6-foot-7 George Sargeant (22 points, 10-of-11 at the free throw line) and Jon Arenas (20).
“We’d much rather be able to hang our hats on a win tonight,” said a disappointed ETHS head coach, Mike Ellis, “but to come back from 10 points down like that against a team that plays like Maine South is a feat in itself. I look at it like coming back from 20 points down. The fact that they were able to fight their way out of a deep hole like that, we were just so proud of the way they fought tonight.
“The last half of the fourth quarter was a microcosm of our season. We have players who no one (recruiters, college coaches) talks about, but they play the right way and they do it for their teammates. They played for each other and we had a lot of different guys make plays in the fourth quarter.
“These seniors are the group that I came in with, and they really invested a lot in the program. It hurts tonight, but they won the most games since I’ve been here at ETHS. They laid a foundation.”
Jones in particular rose to the occasion in his final game in a Wildkit uniform. He registered only one point in the first half, in typical fashion for a leader who usually lets the game come to him before breaking loose on offense.
Jones erupted for 14 points in the fourth quarter to keep the Kits within striking distance even though the Hawks refused to give them an opening at the free throw line. Maine South converted 22-of-31 at the charity stripe on the night, but a miss by Andrew Palucki in a bonus situation at the 1:10 mark prevented South from expanding on a six-point advantage.
A 3-point basket by Jones and two free throws by the seldom-used White made it a one possession game, and when the Hawks turned the ball over against Evanston’s press, White cashed in on a trey from the right side to force OT.
In the OT, Maine South ran off seven unanswered points in transition to finally secure the win.
“The transition points were an area we had to win, and while we did a better job tonight than in the first two games, every time we DIDN’T capitalize on turnovers, they came back and capitalized on ours,” Ellis said. “That was the difference in the game.”
Eastern, who hadn’t played since suffering a sprained ACL in his knee back in December, competed in a knee brace and played 25 minutes while sinking 4-of-7 3-point attempts. He banked in a 35-footer at the first quarter buzzer.
“He looked comfortable, and since he didn’t seem tired we left him in,” Ellis noted. “He was our most dominant player in the last three practices, so he earned the right to be on the floor so much. He made shots, he made plays and his defense was solid. He excels with his decisions against the zone like that. He’s a special player.”
“At one point the doctors said I might not play again this year. But the rehab went well and I got clearance to play about two weeks ago,” Eastern said. “I wanted to come back and do whatever I could to win for the seniors. I felt pretty good --- I was probably about 90 percent tonight --- and I just wanted to give it my best tonight.”
Eastern and all-Central Suburban League South division choice Elijah Henry will return as players to build around next year, along with an influx of talent from the sophomore team that won the league crown and posted an overall record of 22-4 even though Eastern played all of his minutes at the varsity level.
But before looking ahead to next season, Ellis had to give the Class of 2014 their due.
“One thing we learned this season is that these guys are winners,” the coach said. “It was an incredible season for them. This group has grown up a lot. I knew they’d turn it around after last year because we have great parents and great kids in this family. I knew we had kids who wouldn’t quit. In the past there was a lot of finger pointing and doubting, but tonight they played for each other. “