Evanston’s defense hasn’t reached a championship level just yet on the basketball court. But the Wildkits are starting to find out that where there’s a Will — there’s a way.
With senior guard Will Jones clamping down on Niles North star Duante Stephens in the second half Saturday night, Evanston rolled to its fourth straight victory by turning back the Vikings 62-57 in front of a large crowd at Beardsley Gymnasium.
Jones helped limit Stephens to 3-of-9 shooting from the floor in the second half after being torched by Stephens for 19 first-half points. He finished with 27 against Jones, who most of the time this season has drawn the opponents’ biggest offensive threat as his defensive assignment.
Jones certainly wasn’t satisfied even though he and his teammates followed what has become a familiar pattern this season, a bad opening quarter followed by two or three periods of stingy defense that have led to an overall record of 13-4.
“I’m not happy about my defense tonight. I thought it was my worst game of the season,” said the senior co-captain. “Basically it was all mental for me. I knew I had to play good defense in the second half to give my team a chance to win.
“We need to start games off better, because we always seem to turn it up in the second half. Our mindset at the beginning of games is usually that we’re going to outscore you, when it really has to be that the other team isn’t gonna score. We have to start locking teams down. We feel like we can stay in the game with anyone we play, though, and when we’re down we don’t put our heads down. We just play better.”
“I can’t say the effort wasn’t there because Will really tried hard tonight,” said ETHS coach Mike Ellis. “Sometimes players get in a groove like that and it’s tough to get them out of their rhythm, but we decided to stick with Will on him. Will is our leader and he takes a challenge like that seriously.
“We did change up our defense a little because we ran another guy at him at times in the second half. It’s not easy for a high school player to have a career half like that and follow it up with that same kind of success in the second half. It doesn’t happen very often.”
Stephens, a transfer from Notre Dame, erupted for 13 points in the first quarter as the Vikings broke out to a 22-14 advantage. But Evanston only yielded 28 total points over the next two periods and used a 6-0 run — on a pair of buckets by Marcus Johnson and a 15-footer by Jones — to snatch a 42-40 lead entering the fourth quarter.
Tied at 45-all, the home team responded and took the lead for good with a 9-0 run that featured a 3-point basket by Dante Henley off an inbounds pass; a dazzling spin move for a layup in the lane by freshman Nojel Eastern; Elijah Henry’s putback of a missed shot; and a fast-break layup by Jackson Mihevc.
“I was glad to see our guys didn’t panic after that first quarter,” Ellis praised. “We were not in a panic mode down 22-14, we just had to make sure they didn’t get what amounted to a big run on us. We refocused ourselves and put more effort into the defensive end of the floor.”
Henley (11 points, 3 assists) and Henry (10 points, 6 rebounds) were the only Wildkits to reach double figures, backed up by Jones with 9 points and 3 assists and Mihevc with 9 points.
Stephens shot 10-of-20 from the field for his 27 points for the Vikings, now 8-8 on the season.