Lance Jones couldn’t make a layup to save his life Tuesday night at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates.
But the Evanston senior saved the Wildkits’ season at both ends of the floor down the stretch.
Jones’ defensive stop led to his own game-tying basket at the end of regulation play, and he delivered 7 points in the overtime period as the Wildkits earned a return trip to the Final Four with a 57-45 super-sectional victory over Stevenson.
Evanston improved to 31-4 on the year and will take on Rockford East in the Illinois High School Association Class 4A state semifinals Friday at 5:30 p.m. at Carver Arena in Peoria. Rockford East eliminated Geneva 70-62, Chicago Curie edged Simeon 56-54, and defending state champion Belleville West dumped Bolingbrook 72-60 to make up the rest of the Final Four.
It’s the first time in school history that Evanston has reached the state finals in back-to-back seasons and that accomplishment didn’t seem too likely at halftime, trailing 26-16. But these Wildkits in general — and Jones in particular — weren’t about to be denied their season-long goal of another trip to Peoria.
Jones scored a game-high 18 points to fuel a second-half comeback, Jaheim Holden added 10 points and tied a single-game school record with 8 steals, and Ryan Bost netted 13 points for the winners.
Stevenson (27-6) was paced by Luke Chieng with 12 points and Matt Ambrose with 11. But the Patriots melted against withering defensive pressure applied by ETHS in the second half, turning the ball over 29 times overall, including 12 times in the third quarter when Evanston’s trio of senior guards took over the game.
“I’m really proud of the way these guys didn’t quit. They fought hard the entire game,” said Evanston head coach Mike Ellis. “It’s a joy for me to coach a veteran group like this. Stevenson built a double-digit lead by surviving our own missed opportunities at the rim, but we stole that energy back with the defensive effort we put in, in the second half. To turn them over that many times, when Stevenson had 4 point guards on the floor, speaks to our will to win.
“They all know that I coached in Peoria, but I didn’t want them to do this for me. I want them to have their own memories and realize their own dreams down there. I love these guys.”
Defense delivered a chance to come back but the Kits were still in danger in the final seconds. Stevenson had a 42-40 lead and was in the bonus, holding the ball and waiting for a foul that could help the Pats clinch an upset at the free throw line.
Instead, Jones and Bost trapped Ambrose near mid-court, with Jones keeping a big hand on the ball and forcing a held ball. The possession arrow read in Evanston’s favor, and Jones twisted down the lane for a short shot that knotted the score with 28 seconds left on the clock.
Everyone wearing Orange and Blue held their breath as Ambrose missed a 3-point try at the buzzer — it was long, and then the Wildkits scored the first 10 points of the OT session to keep their season alive.
“I’m just so happy we won,” said Jones. “It means a lot for us to get back to State. We could have done better last year (3rd place finish) and I’m really grateful to get a second chance to go down there, because you don’t get a lot of second chances.”
Jones missed 9 of his first 12 field goal attempts, including several layups, and was part of a woeful performance by the Kits offensively in the first half.
“I guess I was too excited about being one win away from Peoria, because that’s a feeling you can’t describe,” he said. “I let my emotions get the best of me. But at the end, I just tried to stay focused.
“We’ve come back like that before. We were up 2 at halftime against Notre Dame (in the regional finals) and went on a 14-0 run with a lot of defensive stops.”
Holden tied the ETHS single game record of 8 steals set by Karlton Mims in a 1998 game against Waukegan. He turned the backcourt showdown into a men versus boys matchup and helped the Kits claw their way back into a 34-30 lead after three quarters.
How dominant was Evanston’s defense? Stevenson didn’t even get off a single shot attempt in the first 4 minutes of the third quarter.
“We always play better in the second half,” Holden explained. “We’ve got 3 4-year varsity players and we’ve seen every situation there is. Facing adversity isn’t that big a deal for us. We know how to put our team in the best possible position to win.”
“We knew we didn’t play our A game in the first half, and we really didn’t play our A game in the second half, either. But we really picked up our intensity,” said Bost.
“Getting back to Peoria? It’s right on top of my head every minute of every day, every practice and every game. It’s all about getting back to Peoria. We want to get back and finish what we started last year.”