After beating Stevenson in overtime of the IHSA Class 4A Hoffman Estates Supersectional round, the Evanston Township High School boys basketball team punched its ticket to the State Finals for the second straight season.
On March 15, the Wildkits took on Rockford East in the State semifinal round at Carver Arena in Peoria. Last season, the Kits came up short in the semifinals en route to a third-place finish. But this time around, the Kits were able to get over the hump, defeating the E-Rabs 94-82.
The next day, the Kits took on the defending State champion Belleville West in the State championship game. Unfortunately, the Kits were unable to knock off last season’s State champion, as they fell by a score of 71-59.
In the first half, it appeared as though the Kits were on their way to their first title since 1968, as they jumped out to an 18-8 lead in the first quarter and led by a 35-25 tally with less than two minutes remaining in the first half. But the Maroons had other ideas, as they battled back and eventually took their first lead at 43-42 with 2:41 remaining in the third quarter. By the end of that quarter they led 47-46.
In the fourth, the teams played to a 50-50 score with five minutes remaining, when sophomore Jaylin Gibson tied the game. But from there, the Maroons went on a 7-0 run to take a 57-50 lead with 2:52 remaining. Sophomore Louis Lesmond then answered with a three-pointer to make it 57-53 with 2:37 to go, but that unfortunately was the closest the Kits would get, as the Maroons pulled away in the final minutes to make it a 71-59 final score.
“I thought we did the same thing,” said Head Coach Mike Ellis, referring to his team’s fast start against Belleville West.
“We came out ready to play. In the first half, we played very solid. We tried to have our speed and full-court tempo take their toll on them and wear them down.”
The Coach continued, “But not only are they big and strong, they are well-conditioned. So they were able to [keep up with us] and actually improve as the game went on. They really hurt us inside and I think the size of their team against our team took its toll.”
Leading the way for the Kits was Jaheim Holden, who scored 20 points, while Lance Jones tallied 15 and Louis added 12 points. “Jaheim was really solid for us. He has had a great season and a great career. The growth he has had these last four years has been tremendous,” said Coach Ellis. “Again, it was a situation where one of our senior captains just not wanting the season to end on a loss. He gave us all he could.”
Against the E-Rabs in Rockford the night before, the Kits shot 63% in the first half and hit eight three-pointers as they led 48-29 at halftime. At intermission, it appeared the Kits would cruise to victory in the second half. But the E-Rabs did not go down quietly, coming back to within 10 at 68-58 after three quarters. They outscored the Kits 29-20 in the third quarter. Then the E-Rabs got to within 77-69 with 3:15 remaining in the fourth. But fortunately, sophomore Blake Peters hit a three-pointer – his seventh of the game – to extend the lead back to double figures at 80-69 with 2:33 remaining.
In the ensuing possession, the E-Rabs made it 80-71 with 2:21 left, but then seniors Lance and Jaheim combined to score the next five points, making it an 87-71 contest with 1:45 remaining. This proved more than enough as the Kits finished off the 94-82 victory.
“I thought it was one of our better performances in our recent games,” said Coach Ellis. “Our guys really came out and I think we wanted to make sure what happened in the Super-sectional against Stevenson [the Kits trailed by 10 at halftime] did not happen against Rockford East. A big part of that win was the way we came out from the jump ball and really played aggressively.”
Leading the Kits’ scoring attack was Blake, with 27 points, including hitting seven of his eight three-point attempts, while Lance poured in 24 points. With the win, the Kits improved to 32-4 overall and advanced to the State title game for the first time since 1984.
“Those [Lance and Blake] are two guys that led us in scoring all year,” said Coach Ellis. “Sometimes you get to that stage and you do not respond with the type of games you have been accustomed to, but give those guys credit. They were not afraid of the moment and they pretty much willed us to win as Rockford East mounted that second half comeback.”
The Kits finished the season with an overall record of 32-5. This was the first team in school history to have back-to-back final four appearances. The Kits’ second-place finish is the best they have had since the 1984 State runner up.
“It is something these guys can all be proud of,” said Coach Ellis regarding the accomplishment. “A couple years ago, we were picked to finish fourth in the Conference. So we were not even a top-three team in our Conference three years ago. Then that season, we ended up third in State. Now they have taken it to another level, getting to the final game of the season that is played in our class. So I could not be more proud of those guys.”