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While his competitive juices were forced to simmer as he took the summer basketball season off recuperating from a foot injury, Nojel Eastern was forced to watch more action from the sidelines than any self-respecting gym rat like the Evanston junior should have to.
The competitor in Eastern finally bubbled to the surface Friday night — just when the Wildkits needed him the most.
After easing back into a comfort zone in Evanston’s first three pool play games, all of them victories, Eastern erupted for a game-high 22 points and claimed tournament Most Valuable Player honors as the Wildkits won the Battle of the Bridge Thanksgiving tournament championship with a 71-64 victory over a rugged Notre Dame squad at DePaul Prep.
Evanston (4-0) avenged a loss to the Dons in last year’s title game, but needed to convert 14-of-18 free throws in the final quarter after building a 20-point advantage in the third quarter. Eastern accounted for 6-of-8 himself with the game on the line, a situation he’s more than familiar with in his third varsity season.
Elyjah Williams (10 points, 14 rebounds) and Chris Hamil (16 points, including four 3-point baskets) joined Eastern on the all-tournament team in another impressive display of depth and balance for coach Mike Ellis’ team.
Eastern’s stat line also included a team-high 4 assists and 3 steals for the winners, who led 55-35 early in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame (3-1) closed the gap to four points — at 63-59, 65-61 and 67-63 — but could get no closer because the Kits refused to miss at the charity stripe.
“Tonight I just felt like I need to come out and produce more for my teammates,” said Eastern, who shot 5-of-14 from the field and 9-of-12 from the free throw line. My foot is feeling fine now and it was important for me to give it my all, on the offense end and on the defensive end. I missed being able to compete like this, and this was a great win for us.”
“One of the things I told all of them before the game was that we had to come out and really compete tonight against Notre Dame,” Ellis said. “And Nojel brought out that competitiveness, not just his skills. When he does that he’s a tough matchup for any opponent.
“It was good to see their teammates picking each other up at the free throw line tonight. I think they’ll take away a lot of lessons from this game. We gave away too many quick baskets in the fourth quarter and we have to dial in more on defense. But I thought we set the tone early in the game with our defense, and the key word for this team is growth. Last year they didn’t understand how to beat a well-coached and well-skilled team like Notre Dame. Now, they do.”
Williams, a 6-foot-6 junior, dominated Notre Dame big man Ammar Becar and helped limit him to just two baskets and two free throws the entire game.
“We really needed this (championship) as a team. Ever since last year we’ve been striving to get back to this game,” Williams explained. “Last year everyone looked down on us because we were so young. But how we got blasted by them just made us work harder. And we’re a tough team to beat twice.”
Evanston all but buried the Dons with a 24-point splurge in the third period, stretching a 29-24 halftime lead to 53-35 as seven different players scored led by Eastern’s 6 points. Malik Jenkins contributed a pair of steals for layups and a Williams’ dunk in the final seconds helped the Kits outscore the Dons 24-11 overall.
Matt Stritzel and Anthony D’Avanzo led Notre Dame with 18 and 17 points, respectively.