Part of the attraction for high school basketball fans in attendance at the 5th annual Chicago Elite Classic Saturday was the clinic in transition basketball put on by Montverde Academy of Jacksonville, Fla.
Unfortunately for Evanston, the Wildkits had a front row seat for that clinic at the University of Illinois-Chicago Pavilion.
Ranked No. 2 in the nation by USA Today, Montverde ran away from the Wildkits and snapped their unbeaten string to open the season at 6 with a resounding 82-51 victory. The winners shot 60 percent from the field (36-of-60), scored 23 points off 19 Evanston turnovers and dominated every phase of the game.
That was business as usual for a Montverde program that recruits internationally — players from Canada and Australia are on the roster this year — and has won three mythical national championships.
But it’s been awhile since Evanston has been on the wrong end of that kind of a blowout. The Kits just couldn’t keep up with all that talent.
“This is my 14th year as a head coach and, no doubt, I’ve never faced a tougher team in my career,” said Evanston coach Mike Ellis. “That’s the most talented team I’ve ever faced. I guarantee you that Montverde has at least one NBA player on that team — if not two.
“They’re very good. Everyone on the court for them can do something with the basketball, and when they can out-run you like that, it’s tough to take. We were out of sync against that running up and down the floor style. And their front line players were the ones who out-ran us, not just the point guard.
“All those turnovers we had in the first half (14) were due to them and due to nervousness, too. Ten of those turnovers were against our sophomores (Jaheim Holden, Lance Jones, Ryan Bost) and it was a rough start for them the first time they faced a nationally ranked team on that kind of stage.”
“Whenever we turned it over, they got out in transition and they didn’t miss any layups,” Holden said. “We didn’t play the way we were supposed to tonight. It was exciting, and a little nerve-wracking, with so many people watching tonight. I guess we weren’t as focused as we’re supposed to be. We’ll definitely learn from the mistakes we made on the court tonight. If we can adjust, we can still go far.”
Seniors Nojel Eastern (17 points), Chris Hamil (11 points) and Elyjah Williams (10 points, 10 rebounds) showed the way for the Wildkits, now 6-1. Montverde improved to 5-0 behind sophomore R.J. Barrett’s 21 points.
The Eagles soared to a 45-28 halftime lead and the closest ETHS could get after that was at 49-37 following a pair of Hamil free throws with 4 minutes, 49 seconds left in the third period. Montverde responded with three quick buckets, including a dunk by Barrett, to erase any doubt about the eventual outcome.
“I don’t look at this as a devastating loss. We have a long season ahead of us, and we’ll push through,” Hamil said. “They forced us to play faster than we wanted to, and we kept turning the ball over. It was nerves, too, playing on this big court in front of a big crowd.
“They were big guys and they ran a lot faster than we did. That was a surprise to me. They were very quick moving up the floor.”
“We need to work on doing the little things a lot better to beat teams like that,” Eastern added. “This is just the beginning for us. They’re a pretty good team, the best I’ve ever played against, but we have to look at this as preparation for the rest of our schedule. This will prepare us better for what’s down the road.
“It was tough on the sophomores because they haven’t played in an environment like this before. Now, they realize what we have to do to stay with this kind of a team. It was a learning experience for all of us.”