This win was for Nojel — and Malcolm — and Elyjah and Chris and all of the seniors on one of the best teams in Evanston’s basketball history, who couldn’t quite get the job done last year but showed the younger players how to compete at a higher level.
Evanston took that next step Tuesday night at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates and advanced to the Illinois High School Association’s Class 4A Final Four for the first time since 2008.
The Wildkits unleashed a 3-point field goal barrage on Lake Zurich, shooting 52 percent from beyond the stripe, and crushed the Bears 78-51 at the 4A supersectional. Jaheim Holden’s 23 points led the offensive onslaught for the winners, who will take a 26-5 won-loss record to the state semifinals Friday in Peoria.
The semifinal matchup will provide ETHS some chance for payback of last year’s supersectional loss after defending 4A state champion Whitney Young eliminated Simeon 71-66 in overtime. The other semifinal will match Belleville West, which ousted West Aurora 81-43, against Elgin Larkin, a 53-46 victor over Benet Academy.
Tuesday’s rare lopsided win for a team used to nail-biters that go down to the final possession may have lacked drama, but the celebration was still the culmination of a long season of hard work for a team that still regards itself as an underdog.
The Wildkits, fresh off a week where they focused specifically on shooting drills, connected on 11-of-21 3-point attempts, including a sizzling 7-of-9 reading in the second quarter alone. Lake Zurich (26-8), a team that also relies on long-range shooting, couldn’t keep up with that kind of firepower and sank just 5-of-14 beyond the arc.
“I think a lot of the credit should go to Nojel Eastern and Malcolm Townsel and Elyjah Williams, the guys from last year who taught these guys how to figure it out,” said Evanston coach Mike Ellis. “And the guys we had coming back (juniors Holden, Lance Jones, Ryan Bost) were willing to apply the lessons they learned from them. I think both groups deserve lots of credit.
“I’ve been to the state finals twice as an assistant coach and twice as a head coach, and I honestly feel better for the kids than I do for myself. I had four memorable years (going to State) and it means a lot to get a chance to be able to share that experience with this group of young men. It’s been 10 years since we got down, and 50 years since we won the state championship, and that’s a lot of history all rolled into one scenario this year.”
For the Bears, coming off their first sectional championship in school history, it was a matter of picking their poison trying to stop Evanston’s offense.
“It’s pretty tough when the other team knocks down 7 3-pointers in a quarter,” admitted Lake Zurich coach Billy Pitcher. “And it’s really hard that kind of speed and anticipation that they have on defense in practice.
“They just buried 3 after 3 after 3 on us,” added senior guard Ryan Kutsor. “We wanted to keep them from driving to the basket, but give them credit because they got hot and they just kept making shots.”
That was no accident, according to Holden, who shot 10-of-13 from the floor and stashed in 14 of his points in the first half to boost the Wildkits to a 38-26 advantage.
“It meant a lot for me to come out and hit some shots, because then everyone else got rolling,” said the junior guard. “It’s really satisfying because we put in so much hard work in shooting drills this week. Coach wanted us to get a lot of shots up (in practice), and it paid off tonight because whenever Lake Zurich switched off on defense, we found the open man and knocked down shots.
“I like working on my shot. I want to play at the next level, and to do that you have to knock down shots when you have the opportunities. I felt like I didn’t do enough last year and my shooting is something I had to work on to help the team this year.
“I think we’re playing our best basketball right now. We were able to accomplish our goal tonight, and to be able to do this for Evanston really means a lot. But I’m still not satisfied.”
“That extra shooting practice made a difference,” noted Ellis, who had to watch practice this week from the stands because he’s suffering from a bad case of the flu and had a 102-degree fever yesterday. “If it’s important to you to keep your season alive you’ll work extra hard on your game. That’s a testament to their will to win.”
Jones (12 points) and freshman Blake Peters (10) connected on 5 triples between them and Bost added a pair in the third quarter to help blow the game open. Lake Zurich went to the sidelines despite 17 points from J.R. Cison and 13 from Kenny Haynes.
“I’m shooting with a lot more confidence now and I’ve been working really hard on my shot,” said Jones, who was 3-of-3 from 3-point range. “We want to come out and get good shots out of our offense, not just go out there and jack up 3s.
“It’s very special for us to get to State because we’ve been overlooked right from the beginning of the season. It feels so amazing!”
Already leading 38-26 at halftime, the Wildkits stretched the advantage to 59-39 after three periods as freshman Jaylin Gibson scored 6 of his total 8 points in the period. Bost contributed 9 points and 4 assists for Evanston, which shot 54 percent (28-of-52) overall from the floor.