Nojel Eastern missed 8 free throws and almost that many layups Friday night at the Class 4A Waukegan Sectional basketball tournament.
But the Evanston senior — and his teammates — refused to lose.
With a will to win forged in the crucible of the toughest regular season schedule in school history, the Wildkits showed their character as a team and rallied from a 9-point deficit late in the third quarter to capture the sectional championship with an 81-68 conquest of the host Bulldogs.
Eastern fueled a 13-0 run in the final two and a half minutes of the third quarter with a pair of 3-point plays in the final 31 seconds, lifting the Wildkits to a 57-53 lead by the end of the period.
Evanston, now 28-3, outscored Waukegan 24-18 in the fourth quarter and earned the right to advance to the supersectional at Chicago State University next Tuesday. Coach Mike Ellis’ squad will face Whitney Young, a 73-55 winner over Oak Park-River Forest, at 7 p.m. for the right to advance to the Final Four next weekend in Peoria.
Eastern scored a team-high 29 points and snatched a career-best 19 rebounds to offset his poor (7-of-15) showing at the free throw line. Elyjah Williams contributed 18 points, 13 rebounds and 6 assists for the winners.
Eastern has alternated between shooting left-handed and right-handed lately at the charity stripe, and switched to a righty style Friday night against the Bulldogs. He did enough other things and was there every time the Kits needed a play to be made to earn the right to keep practicing — and playing.
“I’ll spend the whole weekend shooting free throws,” vowed the 6-foot-6 Purdue University recruit. “We just had to keep fighting and keep fighting tonight. I just focused on whatever I had to do to get the ball in the basket. I tried to get as many second chance opportunities as I could.
“We’re used to this intensity and playing in packed places, and we used it to our advantage tonight. The schedule we’ve played helped us a lot tonight. Our daily motto as a team is to leave everything on the court. We’re so close, like brothers, and we want to make the season last as long as possible.”
Eastern supplied the counter-punch after Waukegan’s only real run of the game — an 8-0 spurt in the third period — could have broken open what had been a one-possession game for most of the first three quarters.
“We haven’t been tested like that in a long time,” admitted a drained Ellis. “But the fact that our guys didn’t cave in or give up on the road, in an environment like this, is a true testament to their will. We just found a way to win.
“Playing in the Dawg Pound is definitely everything it’s cracked up to be. It’s a great atmosphere and it was great for the fans from both schools. But we’ll play anybody any time, any where. When we got down 9 (53-44) I was worried, because we were out of sorts and we weren’t finishing shots well. Fortunately we got a lot of second shots tonight. To the kids’ credit, they had the will and determination no matter what it took for us to come out on top.”
Williams didn’t let Waukegan’s run keep him from producing a relentless effort on the boards.
“Basketball is a game of runs, and we just had to keep fighting and keep playing hard,” he said. “I think Dennis Rodman said it best when he said the more you want the ball, the more the others can’t get it. I pride myself on my rebounding and I would’ve gotten 20 of them if that’s what it took to win tonight. I love playing in this type of game, and winning this game is really something special.”
Evanston endured despite uncharacteristic foul trouble right from the start. Defensive stopper Malcolm Townsel picked up two personals in the first quarter and after that the Kits had no answers on defense against 6-5 Waukegan star Carson Newsome, who poured in a game-high 32 points on 8-of-21 shooting from the floor and 14-of-17 marksmanship at the free throw line. As a team, the hosts shot 24-of-32 at the charity stripe.
Newsome fouled out with 3 minutes, 26 seconds left in the game when Eastern drew an offensive foul from the Waukegan standout with the Kits already on top 72-60. Waukegan didn’t score a field goal in the first five and a half minutes of the final period and exited with a final record of 21-9.
“Elyjah stepped up for us and Chris Hamil (12 points) hit some big shots for us, too,” Ellis pointed out. “Waukegan is a hard team to cover, and we did win the transition game tonight. That was one of our goals. I think our schedule has tested us, having to play possession by possession against some tough teams. When you get down in a game like this, you don’t have a 10-point play. You have to come back one possession at a time, and that’s what we did.”