As Evanston basketball coach Mike Ellis described it, Nojel Eastern’s last second-pass “hit Dante Henley right in the heart.”
Then Henley did the same thing to Zion-Benton.
Henley hit the game-winning 3-point basket at the buzzer Friday night, a dagger to the heart of the state-ranked (and previously undefeated) Zee-Bees that delivered a 54-51 overtime victory at the Lane Tech Thanksgiving Tournament.
It was only Henley’s second basket of the game. But the senior guard is getting used to late game heroics in the Lane Tech second floor gym after also producing a buzzer-beater in last year’s tournament against the host team.
Friday it was his turn again, and now the Wildkits (3-1) could be in position to at least share the tourney title with a victory in the final round Saturday against Lane Tech.
“We drew that last play up for Nojel, but I was open and he gave it to me,” Henley said after swishing the final shot from the right side of the floor, two feet past the 3-point arc. “That’s what we always say in practice, if you’re open, you get the ball. I was open, I got a great pass and I hit the shot.”
“We trusted Nojel to make the play there at the end,” Ellis added. “He’s not just out there because of his skill set, but because he’s also an excellent decision maker and we wanted the ball in his hands. He found the open man and hit Dante in rhythm.
“Nojel made the right play. We have faith in any of our guards to make a wide open shot like that. It was just a well-executed play.”
Led by the trio of Will Jones (12 points, 7 rebounds), Eastern (11 points, 3 rebounds, 6 assists) and Elijah Henry (10 points, 12 rebounds), Evanston executed an unorthodox game plan just put in by Ellis during a practice session Thanksgiving morning. It’s called “Four to Score” and it’s designed to spread out an opposing defense, usually at the end of a quarter.
But once Evanston got the lead against a bigger and stronger Zion-Benton team, the Wildkits kept running it and slashed to the basket whenever 1-on-1 opportunities for Jones, Eastern and their backcourt mates were there.
Ellis dug deep into his Peoria roots to produce a plan for the upset.
“That’s old fashioned Peoria basketball, the kind I’ve seen guys like Chuck Buescher and some of the other legends down there run over the years,” Ellis recalled. “I learned the lessons from them about how to attack teams with a guard-oriented lineup. It’s an offense that’s really not that hard or complicated. We just put the ball in the guards’ hands.
“We knew if we could just hang in there with Zion for the first 8 minutes — and not let them get any big runs against us — that once we got the lead in the second quarter we’d use it. The kids did a great job of executing it. But the key tonight was getting a lead and playing good defense, or we wouldn’t have had the chance to run it.”
Evanston pulled ahead by a 28-20 margin at halftime and still led 38-37 after three periods when Eastern uncorked a halfcourt shot that beat the buzzer. But with the Kits nursing a 3-point lead and 2 minutes, 50 seconds remaining in regulation, Henry misfired on a dunk attempt, was also whistled for a technical foul for grabbing the rim, and the Zee-Bees converted 3 of 4 free throws on that possession to earn a 44-44 tie.
Neither team scored again in regulation. In the OT period, Jones notched six points. His free throw with 57 seconds remaining boosted ETHS to a 51-49 lead, but Zion answered with a lay-in by Jerome Davis off a pass from All-Stater Milik Yarbrough (12 points, 5 rebounds) to set the stage for Henley’s heroics.
Zion-Benton was led by Admiral Schofield with 23 points, but he was just 2-of-6 from the field in the fourth quarter and overtime.
“That was a big for us, coming against a team ranked in the state,” Henley added. “We just started working on that Four to Score yesterday morning. But I was confident that coach knew what he was doing. We have guards who are all strong with the ball, and we were confident we could do it.”
“A win like this puts us in a position to grow up and learn to win as a team,” said Ellis. “That win wasn’t just handed to us. We had to earn it. We learned how to win tonight.”