Maine South’s transition game in the second half beat Evanston the first time the two basketball rivals met this season.
Thursday night at Beardsley Gym, the Wildkits turned the tables on the defending conference champions.
With sophomore point guard Malik Jenkins showing the way in the open court, Evanston posted a wire-to-wire 58-51 victory and closed in on the program’s first Central Suburban League South division championship since 2008.
Evanston (15-6, 7-1) owns a one-game lead over the Hawks (21-3, 6-2) with games remaining against Waukegan and Niles West.
Thursday’s triumph snapped an 11-game winning string for Maine South, which never led in the contest. Jenkins netted 8 of his career-best 11 points in the third period alone, all of them coming after leading scorer Nojel Eastern (17 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists) tweaked his ankle while blocking a shot early in the quarter.
He missed almost six full minutes, but the Wildkits expanded their lead from 27-19 at halftime to 46-35. Eastern returned to start the fourth quarter and sank a pair of bonus free throws with 2 minutes, 10 seconds remaining after the visitors had closed to within 51-48.
“A big part of that third quarter for us was that Malik came out and played so solid,” said ETHS coach Mike Ellis. “He knew he had to come out and be aggressive and make some plays, and that’s what he did. It’s a challenge to generate offense in the fullcourt against Maine South, but when we make aggressive mistakes, we’re still a pretty good basketball team. When we make passive mistakes, we’re not as good.
“I thought Malik’s defensive pressure on the ball pushed Maine South farther out and he did a solid job of disrupting their flow. That’s one of the bigger roles he’s played for us this year.”
Jenkins came off the bench Thursday night after starting Evanston’s previous game at Glenbrook South. But the 5-foot-10 sophomore — like most of his teammates — has bought into the team concept to the point where he’s not counting his minutes played in a given game.
“Starting means nothing. Coach Ellis starts with the matchups, and we go from there,” Jenkins said. “When Nojel went out I knew I had to play hard. Before the game we talked about pushing the game, and that’s what I did.”
“I thought that was the best game we’ve played as a team,” added Eastern, who connected on 6-of-10 field goal attempts. “We played great defense and just played a great all-around game.
“Now we’re in first place, but nothing is guaranteed yet. We just have to come out with intensity in the last two games and get our first real title.”
With the score knotted at 30-all in the third quarter, Evanston began an 11-2 run by actually running. After a 3-point basket by Jerome Bynum, Jenkins and Elijah Henry (6 points, 6 rebounds) scored back-to-back transition buckets. Maine South countered with a pair of free throws, but two more fast-break opportunities for Jenkins produced a basket and two free throws for the sophomore standout.
Maine South, which was paced by Jon Arenas with 17 points, never got closer than three points in the final period.