Jaylin Gibson didn’t mind shedding a little blood Friday night.
A bloody nose was a small price to pay for a career-performance by the Evanston sophomore, who registered a career-high 20 points and led the Wildkits to their third Class 4A sectional championship in a row.
A poised Evanston squad relied on its big-game experience and dazzling 3-point shooting to eliminate Loyola Academy 56-42 in front of a capacity crowd at Niles North and claimed its 30th victory of the season.
Only three other ETHS teams in the history of the program have racked up 30 wins in a season — and all three of them, including the 1968 state champions, brought home a State trophy.
Now 30-4 overall, Evanston will take on Stevenson in Tuesday’s super-sectional matchup at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates at 7:30 p.m. Winner of that game will punch a ticket to the Final Four in Peoria.
Evanston’s return to the Elite Eight showcased the depth of the program headed by coach Mike Ellis. The Wildkits prevailed Friday night despite the fact that All-Area senior guard Lance Jones and sophomore sharpshooter Blake Peters were hampered by foul trouble and didn’t contribute a single field goal for the winners.
So Ellis turned to his bench and sophomores Itchy Holden and Louis Lesmond. They hit critical back-to-back 3-point baskets after the Ramblers (22-13) had crept to within 41-37 with 6 minutes remaining in the game.
“We’ve got of postseason experience on this team, and right now, as far as I’m concerned, Jaylin Gibson is really a junior and so is Louis Lesmond,” Ellis explained. “They both stepped up and hit some big shots for us tonight. We don’t rely on just 1 person to score and I’ve always told them that we want to play 5-on-5 basketball no matter who’s in the game for us.
“We’ve got skill and we’ve got experience and all 5 guys can drive and shoot it. Give them credit because that’s due to the work they’ve put in. Tonight they hit the open man and they hit uncontested shots, and I think our rebounding was pretty good too.”
Loyola practically dared Gibson to shoot from the opening tip, and paid the price as the sophomore converted 8-of-11 shots from the floor, including a 4-of-5 effort from 3-point range. Jaheim Holden added 12 points and 4 assists for the winners.
Loyola lost to ETHS for the second time this season despite 13 points from Bennett Kwiecinski and 12 from Connor Barrett, who missed the first meeting between the two rivals due to injury.
A smoking hot start for the Wildkits put them in control of the pace and tempo for the rest of the game, even when first Jones and then Peters picked up two personal fouls in the first quarter. In that quarter, Evanston piled up 21 points by sinking 7-of-8 3-point attempts, including two apiece by Gibson, Holden and Lesmond.
“Getting that lead on Loyola was big, because they’re used to playing grind-it-out, low-scoring games,” Ellis pointed out. “And the more we had the ball, the more we stayed out of mismatches on defense because of their size advantage.”
Gibson pulled the trigger on the first basket of the game — a 3-pointer from the corner — and proved that no stage is too big for the 6-foot-3 sophomore.
“All eyes were on us, and we did what we had to do tonight,” he said. “That 20 points was definitely worth a little blood. I did take a couple of hits (physically), but that’s fine with me. The 20 points don’t matter —- what really matters is the W, getting the win and getting back Downstate.
“On this team if you hit a couple of shots, they’ll find you again, and I was hitting some open shots tonight. I knew Loyola wanted me to shoot because the first time we played them (a 46-31 ETHS win) I didn’t shoot too well. This morning I came in and worked on my shooting. That’s not something I’d usually do on a game day, but I’ve been doing it since we played at New Trier.”
As in the semifinal sectional win over Glenbrook South, Evanston slowed the pace after leading only 27-21 at halftime. The taller (and slower) Ramblers were in chase mode after that as the Kits coolly spread the floor and waited for openings.
Stout defense by Ryan Bost, with help from the younger Holden, forced Rambler point guard Quinn Pemberton to work hard and the losers weren’t able to run their offense efficiently even though they did shoot 44 percent (16-of-36) from the floor.
“It’s the same game plan we have every game (pressuring opposing point guards), and I definitely felt it worked tonight,” Bost said. “We didn’t get a lot of turnovers out of it, but we were able to speed Quinn up and we made it hard for the others to get open.
“Winning our third sectional in a row is great, but we’re far from done. Knowing you have a lot of players (teammates) around you who can do just as much as you has been a pretty fun experience.”
Lesmond played almost 14 minutes off the bench and contributed 9 points, including that 3-point dagger that restored order in the fourth quarter when the Ramblers were mounting a comeback. The French import knows that his teammates trust him to take — and make — big shots when he’s open.
“I’ve really been working on my shot since the playoffs began,” Lesmond said. “If you hit shots, they’ll trust you, and they know when there’s an opening, I’ll make it.”
“We have so many pieces, so many weapons that any one of our guys can have a good night like Jaylin did,” said Jaheim Holden. “It’s impossible to guard all 5 guys we have on the court. I’ve seen Louis mature so much since the start of the season and he was ready to play tonight. He was able to get into a rhythm, and now I hope he can keep that rhythm going.
“It’s such a blessing to have such talented guys on this team. Our maturity level is great, and that’s what got us this 3-peat.”