The combination of a week of semester examinations and facing a Bob Williams-coached team at the end of such a stressful week isn’t exactly the way Evanston basketball coach Mike Ellis would have drawn up the season’s schedule in advance.
But that’s what the luck of the draw brought the Wildkits, who maintained their hold on second place in the Central Suburban League South division standings with a 69-60 trimming of Niles West in Skokie Friday night.
Evanston completed the first half of league play with a 4-1 mark and remained one game behind Maine South entering the second round of division competition. The Wildkits (14-4 overall) travel to rival New Trier next Friday, following Saturday’s non-conference test at Oak Park-River Forest.
Although Williams’ Niles West squad hasn’t yet won a CSL South game this season, the coach’s reputation for fielding teams that play hard-nosed, never-give-up basketball is well deserved. And no one knows that better than Ellis.
That’s why the ETHS coach was so pleased that his team survived an otherwise ragged contest that included 10 missed free throws and 18 turnovers by the winners.
“It’s always mentally taxing during exam week,” Ellis pointed out. “And Coach Williams does a great job with his teams. You know your kids will be in for a war every time you play one of his teams. They’re always in your face and you have to fight their pressure with pressure. You have to make plays, and we did that tonight.
“I wasn’t pleased with the number of turnovers. But to me, the stat that stands out is that we won the ‘points in the paint’ 30-18 after it was only 14-14 at halftime. Our offensive rebounds were all in the second half.”
Elijah Henry’s 16 points and 8 rebounds paced the Wildkits. Will Jones added 12 points and 6 boards, C.J. Singletary came off the bench to net 11 points, and Nibra White tallied 9 points.
Henry and the rest of the starters returned to the court after Niles West (4-9 overall, 0-5 CSL South) sliced the lead to 56-47 with 5 minutes, 41 seconds left in the game. Henry slammed home a dunk off a feed from Jones and then scored Evanston’s next three baskets to restore order for the visitors.
Evanston converted only 15-of-25 chances at the free throw line but still had a comfortable double digit lead for most of the second half. Niles West did place four players in double figures, led by Ahmad Gibson with 14 points.
The undersized Wolves scrapped their way to a 25-25 tie in the second quarter before Evanston responded with an 11-0 run to pull away. Jones tallied five points during that run, which also featured a rebound basket by Marcus Johnson, a layup off an inbound play by Singletary, and two free throws by freshman Nojel Eastern. Evanston led 36-27 at the halftime intermission.
“There’s a huge difference between being 3-2 and being 4-1 in the conference,” Ellis added. “That’s what would have happened if we didn’t take care of business tonight. Now we’ve set ourselves up for probably the toughest game on our schedule, next week at New Trier. Now we start the (conference) cycle all over again.
“The next step for us as a team is to understand the urgency of the moment and the importance of that next trip down the floor. The teams that are state-ranked, the teams that are tough are the ones that are able to overcome adversity. They’re the ones that can stop a bad streak of play. When you’re unsuccessful at one end of the floor, that’s when you have to crank up the intensity at the other end.”