After clinching the Central Suburban League South Conference title with a win against Niles West on Feb. 20, the Evanston Township High School boys basketball team looked to make it two in a row and gain some more momentum entering the postseason when they took on Deerfield in the regular season finale on Feb. 25.
Sure enough, the Kits beat Deerfield 47-33 in the Central Suburban League Showcase game, which is a matchup of the two CSL division winners. The Kits were led by sophomore Nojel Eastern and senior Elijah Henry, both of whom were named to the CSL South All-Conference team. Nojel scored 11 points and had three assists, and Elijah tallied 10 points and seven rebounds in the victory.
With the victory, the Kits finished the regular season with an overall record of 18-8 and indeed gained some momentum, having won two in a row entering postseason play, which is exactly what Coach Mike Ellis had hoped for upon entering the playoffs. “You want to be on a roll with some momentum going into the postseason, the Coach said. “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].”
Entering postseason play the Kits earned the No. 5 seed in the 23-team Waukegan Sectional and took on No. 11 Loyola Academy on March 3 in the Evanston Regional semifinals. In that game, the Kits beat the Ramblers 51-36. Against Loyola, Nojel scored a game-high 16 points for the Kits and collected eight rebounds, junior Dylan Mulvihill chipped in eight points and six rebounds, and senior Xhavier Hilliard added seven points and three rebounds, to lead the Kits’ attack.
In beating Loyola, the Kits advanced to the Regional title game against No. 3 Maine South on March 6. In that game, the Kits again prevailed, 58-53, to capture their second straight Regional title. The Kits took a 32-26 lead in to halftime, thanks in part to Elijah, sophomore Jerome Bynum and junior Chris Hamil, who combined for 25 first half points. But the Hawks answered by opening the third quarter with a 9-0 run to take a 35-32 lead with five minutes to go in the quarter. But from there, Nojel, who was scoreless in the first half due to foul trouble, scored his first basket with four minutes to go in the quarter to get the Kits back to within one, 35-34, and his next basket came with 1 minute 33 seconds remaining to tie the score at 40 entering the fourth.
Early in the fourth the Hawks took a 47-43 lead but the Kits responded and got back to within 49-48 with 4 minutes 5 seconds remaining. Nojel answered once again with back-to-back baskets to give the Kits a 52-49 lead with 2 minutes 17 seconds remaining. Then Xhavier delivered the knockout punch with a layup with 1 minute 10 seconds left to give the Kits a 54-49 lead, which they would not give up from that point on, as they hung on for the 58-53 victory.
Regarding his team’s ability to bounce back after trailing early in the fourth quarter, Coach Ellis said, “It was good to see the guys not fold. They understood that there was a lot more game left to play and they picked it up from then on.”
“It was great for these seniors,” the Coach said about their overall performance. “The best part of this team is they are teammates. They want to win for one another. Nothing is done for selfish reasons and it is good to see them rewarded for being good teammates,” he said. “I thought we were smart finding the hot hand. We did not force shots. If a guy hit a shot in the previous possession, we found him in the next possession. It was just smart, team basketball and that was the bottom line.”
The Kits certainly found the hot hand in the fourth quarter with Nojel, who scored 11 of his team-high 15 points in the final stanza. Chris added 12 points on four three pointers, while Jerome and Elijah chipped in eight points apiece in the victory.
“Jerome and Chris stepped up really big, they hit some key shots,” said Coach Ellis. “Maine South is a very tough team, very disciplined team, and well-coached, so it was great to see those guys answer the call against a team that was going to apply pressure like that. Not in terms of ball-hawking pressure, but no-holes-in-the-defense pressure.”
Regarding Nojel’s ability to take over the game in the fourth quarter, Coach Ellis said, “I just think it is the competition in Nojel [that got him going after a slow start]. He hates to lose, he did not want to be the reason why we lost. So he stepped up and made some plays, and put his teammates on his back. In the fourth quarter he said, ‘Now this is my time.’ He avoided fouling out and it was up to him to make it worth not fouling out and be an impact. So it was good to see him play with that type of intensity instead of just saying, ‘Well this just is not my game.’ He was able, in a short eight-minute stretch, to make it his game,” Coach Ellis continued. “I have to credit his teammates, I am sure he would too, they found him, they were looking for him, and they found him in situations to get him the basketball. It was not just Nojel being Nojel, it was our teammates playing through a hot hand.”
When asked how it feels to win the Regional championship, Coach Ellis said, “It feels good to be able to play in practice [at least one more time]. Of course you love to win and hate to lose, but having the opportunity to go to the gym one more time with this group is special. They are a great group of guys and I enjoy my time in the gym with them. That is the best part about it is we do not have to meet them in the locker room and collect gear, we get to go out and actually practice.”
By winning the Regional, the Kits advanced to the Waukegan Sectionals and were set to take on Lake Forest on March 11, the day this paper went to press, in the Sectional semifinals. Should they win that game, the Kits would play either Stevenson or Notre Dame on March 13 in the Sectional championship game.