After taking on St. Charles East and falling by a score of 76-47 on Feb. 18, the Evanston Township High School boys basketball team looked to bounce back against Central Suburban League South Conference foe Niles West on Feb. 20 in Niles.
In that game, the Wildkits were able to do just that, prevailing by a score of 46-44. The Kits led 23-21 at the half, but the Wolves went on an 8-0 run to begin the third quarter to give the hosts a 29-23 lead with 4 minutes 26 seconds remaining in the quarter. But from there, the Kits responded with a 9-3 run to close the quarter, tying the game at 32 heading into the final quarter. That run included five points from sophomore Nojel Eastern, two free throws by senior Elijah Henry and a basket by sophomore Elyjah Williams.
In the fourth quarter, after the Kits took a 36-32 lead on Nojel’s jumper and two free throws, the Wolves responded with back-to-back three pointers to give them a 38-36 lead. But the Kits answered once again. After Elyjah tied the score at 38, Nojel hit a three pointer to give the Kits a 41-38 lead with 3 minutes and 15 seconds left. Then after the teams exchanged baskets, Nojel hit another three pointer to extend the Kits’ lead to 46-40 with 1 minute and 30 seconds remaining.
But the Wolves refused to quit as they got back to within 46-44 with 17 seconds remaining. Then after Nojel missed a free throw with 11 second left, the Wolves had a chance to win it but a three point attempt at the buzzer was no good, allowing the Kits to escape with the victory.
“We had a lead and we gave it up with some turnovers down the stretch, but we did not panic. It was good so see us play with some poise,” said head coach Mike Ellis. “They [Niles West] came out [in the second half] in a zone with a different tempo of defense.” Coach Ellis added, “A couple [of our] turnovers were careless, and we were not being aggressive and that seemed to be the theme of the night. But whenever we were solid, and we are strong and aggressive, a lot of good things happened for us.”
One of those good things was the performance of Nojel, who scored a game-high 20 points. “Nojel just focused up and knocked in a shot. He said, ‘Hey, I am going to put my team on my back.’ That is just the kind of player he is.”
Asked if he talked about having Nojel take over the game after the team struggled out of the gate in the second half, the Coach said, “That conversation happens a lot, where we tell him he needs to be more aggressive. We say, ‘You need to take over, you need to be more aggressive, look to score.’ We ran some sets to get him those three’s and he made the shots.”
When asked what happened early in the third when the Wolves went on an 8-0 run to open the quarter, Coach Ellis said, “[We were] just too casual, too relaxed. We let some shooters score where we knew they could score from.” The Coach added, “We were [also] careless with the basketball, too passive. So it was just a combination on both ends. But it was good to see them pick up the intensity and make some plays [after that].”
With the win, the Kits improved to 17-8 overall and 9-1 in CSL South play, which earned them their first CSL South Conference title since 2010-11. “[Winning Conference] is definitely an accomplishment that these guys can be proud of,” said Coach Ellis. “We talked about winning titles and championships and to not win one at Thanksgiving or Christmas, their next opportunity to win one was Conference and to see them grasp that challenge, I think that was important. They showed it, every Friday night out, they showed up [with] as close to their A-game as they could bring. It is something they should be proud of and now the next opportunity for a title is Regionals.”
Next up, the Kits takes on Deerfield Feb. 25 as part of the CSL Crossover, after which they participate in the IHSA Class 4A Evanston Regionals as the No. 5 seed against the winner of the Loyola Academy and Taft matchup on March 3. Should the Kits win that game, they would play for the regional championship on March 6.
“We are hosting the Regional where these teams are in our gym but the bottom line is it is not who we are playing, we always play ourselves, and when we play well, we can beat anybody,” said the Coach. “But when we try to get away from things we work on in practice, then it leads to chaos.”
Coach Ellis feels the keys are playing smart and using team chemistry to their advantage. “At this time of year, it comes down to who it is more important to. It is, do you want to go to practice the next day or do you want to collect gear the next day? That is what team chemistry is all about,” the Coach explained. “You see the teams make runs with great chemistry. They love playing with each other so much that they want to go to practice again together the next day. We just have to polish that shine for our team because these guys do enjoy playing with one another. They are a great group of guys, a close-knit group of guys. So that is one of the keys…to value the importance of the chemistry that we have and play for the guy next to you.”
The Coach added, “Nobody wants to collect gear this time of year and that is what it boils down to. Teams that can make the littlest things the most important things get to continue to go to practice the next day [after a win].”
If all goes to plan and the Kits can do the little things, look for them to be in position to have at least a couple more practices once postseason play begins.