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Both crowds — home and visitors — heated up the rivalry between the Evanston and Loyola Academy basketball teams on frigid Tuesday night in Wilmette.
And senior guard Lance Jones showed that he didn’t mind a little trash talk while providing the ultimate silencer for Evanston — a steal and a dunk — that sealed a 46-31 non-conference triumph for the Wildkits.
Jones got an earful from Loyola’s student section for most of the contest, especially after he shot an air ball midway through the third quarter.
The ETHS senior guard endured the “air ball” taunts every time he touched the ball — right up until his steal and jam with 2 minutes, 48 seconds remaining provided the ultimate payback along with an insurmountable 43-31 advantage for the Kits, who upped their season record to 21-4.
“They were talking about SIU (Southern Illinois, his college choice), my girlfriend and for some reason they were calling me ‘vegan,’ too,” said Jones, who netted 11 points and 3 steals to lead the Kits along with Jahiem Holden’s 13 points, 7 rebounds and 4 steals. “They were asking me what a Saluki (SIU mascot) was, too. I just laughed it off. At the end of the day, they paid to watch us play so they can say whatever they want to.
“Of course I know that the students will try to get under your skin and knock you off your stool (game). It was very satisfying to get that dunk. When I saw Jaylin (teammate Jaylin Gibson) get one, I wanted to get one too. I got the opportunity and I knew that it was just me and the rim then. It’s good preparation for me, because in college I know I’ll hear worse and I’ll still have to stay focused.”
Evanston’s defense held the host team to just 25 percent shooting from the floor, including a dismal 2-fo-17 showing in the fourth quarter with the game still undecided. The Ramblers (17-7) were without one of their top offensive players, senior guard Connor Barrett, who suffered a foot injury over the weekend and may be lost for the year.
Barrett’s absence didn’t diminish the fact that the Kits achieved their pre-game goal by holding the Ramblers under 40 points.
“I thought our defense in the second half was the difference in allowing us to stretch out our lead,” said Evanston coach Mike Ellis after the Wildkits only led 22-19 at the halftime intermission. “Our guys are learning how to adjust to limit the strengths of our opponents, and defensively we’re getting a little bit smarter as a team. We were all on the same page in the second half at both ends of the floor, on offense and on defense.
“I really liked the fan support we got tonight in another team’s gym and especially on a night like this (sub-zero temperatures outside). I felt like our fans gave our team a lift and the energy when we needed it tonight. We needed that for us to raise our game to the next level, and I told our guys (after the game) that we should reward them by taking them to Peoria (site of the Illinois High School Association state finals).”
Evanston’s ability to adjust to different styles of play this season has produced wins in the 70-60 point range and others when the games are in the 50-40 range. The Wildkits have proven that they don’t need to get up-and-down the floor at a fast pace to maintain their lofty state ranking.
You could make a case that ETHS beat the Ramblers at their own game Tuesday because Loyola head coach Tom Livatino emphasizes defense as much as any high school coach in the state of Illinois.
“We know that they’re going to try to slow the game down,” said senior guard Ryan Bost, who contributed 8 points and 5 rebounds for the winners. “So our game plan against them is always to try to speed them up and get them out of their comfort zone. I think speeding them up and our intensity on defense is why they shot so poorly (12-of-48).
“Sometimes it’s not fun to play like this, but if that’s what we have to do to win, that’s what we’ll do. We learn how to play different tempos every day in practice.”
Evanston outscored Loyola 14-7 in the third quarter, including a 3-point basket by sophomore Louis Lesmond with 3 seconds left in the period to claim a 36-26 lead. It was the first bucket since Thanksgiving for Lesmond, who has been sidelined by a foot injury after moving to Evanston from France last summer.
Loyola only mustered 5 points in the final quarter and didn’t score at all in the last 4 minutes of the game. Jordan Kwiecinski led the losers with 11 points and 12 rebounds, shooting 4-of-13 from the floor.