With a loss to Loyola in the class 4A Loyola Regional title game last season behind them, the Evanston Township High School boys basketball team has hopes of avenging that loss and having a solid season. That starts with working hard to improve every day, says Head Coach Mike Ellis.
“We try not to set out goals like sectional championships. Our goals are more geared towards the daily preparation to get better each and every day,” said Ellis. “We try to simplify it and do the things we know will build our culture and our program to where we can be the best we can be.”
In order for the Wildkits to be the best they can be, they will need strong performances from a number of players this season – a few seniors in particular. “Senior Will Jones has probably worked the hardest in the offseason and he is going to be a person that we will count on. Junior Elijah Henry is one of the more skilled returners,” said Ellis. “Dante Henley, Nibra White and Jackson Mihevc … are seniors that played significant minutes last year and returning. Nojel Eastern is a freshman who we will be counting on also.”
On Nov. 25, in the first round of the Frank Lollino Thanksgiving Tournament at Lane Tech, the Kits did not get off to the kind of start they had hoped for, as they fell to Mt. Carmel 57-39 in the season-opener. In his high school debut, Eastern scored 16 points to lead the Kits’ attack. One of his six baskets was 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter to get the Kits back to within 4 points. But a 13-0 run by the Caravan proved costly, and the Kits fell to 0-1 on the season. Henry also contributed for the Kits, scoring 8 points and adding seven rebounds. White netted 7 points, and Mihevc grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds.
The Kits then beat Notre Dame 50-38 on Nov. 26 to improve to 1-1 overall. Once again, Eastern led the Kits’ offensive attack with 18 points, five rebounds and three steals, while Mihevc chipped in 14 points. But defense was the name of the game. The Kits clamped down and held the Dons scoreless in the first four minutes of the first and fourth quarters. In the second half, the Kits limited the Dons to just six field goals over the final two quarters.
Regarding Eastern’s performance, Ellis said, “He is a talented freshman, both talented skill-wise as well as mentally. He has got a lot of knowledge of the game. He is a really solid layer and a really solid person. I think the most pleasing thing is how well the team has accepted him.”
After beating Notre Dame, the Kits looked for their second victory on Nov. 27 against Taft. They got it, prevailing 71-58. Jones scored 15 points and White added 13 to help the Kits improve to 2-1 overall. The Kits next beat Zion-Benton in overtime, 54-51, on Nov. 29.
With the score tied at 51-51, after receiving a pass from Eastern in the waning seconds, Henley hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Kits the victory on a play called “Four to Score,” designed to stretch out the opposing defense, usually at the end of a quarter. Henley performed similar heroics a year ago, hitting a buzzer-beater against Lane Tech in this same tournament. Jones led the Kits with 12 points and seven rebounds. Eastern scored 11 points to go with six assists, and Henry added a double-double of 10 points and 12 rebounds.
On Nov. 30, the Kits beat Lane Tech 65-59. They were led by C.J. Singletary, who scored 13 points, Henry, who tallied 11 to go with five rebounds, and Marcus Johnson, who added 10 points and seven rebounds. Also contributing was Jones, who scored 10 points. Eastern chipped in six assists in the victory.
With the victory, the Kits improved to 4-1 overall and finished in a three-way tie for the tournament title. But Mount Carmel, who handed the Kits their only loss, was crowned as champion based on points allowed in the round-robin tournament. Coach Ellis said, “We finished 4-1 and played well in a couple games and played average in a couple other games. … I thought overall it was a great experience fore us. We learned some lessons, figured out what it is going to take to win games and I think our players applied those lessons as the tournament went on.”
In order for the Kits to be successful the rest of the season, Coach Ellis said, “We want to play smart. I think one of the things last year that was our downfall was we did not always make the right reads and right decisions and this year so far our guys are playing more unselfishly and playing for each other. That can go a long way towards a winning record.”
Coach Ellis added, “Our defense will always be a key. We put a lot of practice time in on our defense and that is an area that we have an opportunity to impact each and every night. We have a lot of shooters on our team, but you are not going to make every shot. You can bring your defense every night and that is what we are trying to teach and emphasize in our daily practices.”
Next up, the Kits take on archrival New Trier in the second annual Bob Bost Classic on Saturday at Beardsley Gym in Evanston. “[The Trevians] are good. They have a starting point guard in Jordan Thomas, who is a four-year varsity player and is very athletic, and they have a lot of shooters on the wing around him,” said the coach. “They play solid, they are well-coached. They play tough [defense], and will switch from man-to-man to a 1-3-1 half-court trap to try to distort your offense.”
The coach added, “It is a nice start to the Central Suburban League South Conference schedule, Evanston-New Trier to lead off the conference, especially in Beardsley Gym. We know we have our hands full and I am looking forward to a good week of practice to prepare for the challenge.”