You only need one hand to count the number of times an Evanston basketball team has captured a Christmas tournament championship.
And the Wildkits didn’t mind working overtime to achieve that rare feat here on Saturday night.
Evanston won a battle of deliberate play and relied on Itchy Holden’s 3-point basket and 3 free throws in OT to overcome host Centralia for a 53-47 victory in the finals of the Centralia Holiday Tournament.
Tournament Most Valuable Player Blake Peters scored a game-high 20 points and Daeshawn Hemphill added 10 for the winners in the finale. Teammate Jaylin Gibson joined Peters as a first-team all-tourney selection, and Holden was named to the second team after netting a career-high 21 points in a 60-36 conquest of Chatham-Glenwood in Saturday’s semifinal matchup.
Saturday’s title game featured all-guard lineups for both squads, and the Wildkits were able to play to their strength, stay patient and spread the floor in a game where time of possession really mattered.
It’s a strategy that head coach Mike Ellis has employed often in his tenure and it paid dividends again against Centralia.
“Centralia plays all guards, too, and they can give you problems with the 3-point shooting, their free throw shooting and shooting layups if you let them,” Ellis explained. “They got to the basket more times than we would’ve liked, and they made their free throws, but they only had a couple of 3’s against us (after reaching double figures twice previously in the tourney).
“We have a lot of confidence in our guards. You have to take advantage of your own strengths, and we count on the talent of our ballhandlers and their decision-making in tight games like this one. They have to have good decision-making regarding the time and the score, and they have to knock down free throws, too.
“Blake had a good look for us at the end of regulation and he missed from the top of the key. They tried to kill the clock at the end of the game, and so did we. We held the ball for about two minutes at the end and in the last 3 minutes of regulation and the last 2 minutes of overtime, I’d say there were probably 4 total possessions.”
Peters connected on 4-of-11 shots from 3-point range on his way to a 20-point total and helped the Kits maintain their composure even when the foul totals favored the home team. He finished with 61 points in 4 tourney games but his contributions, according to Ellis, couldn’t just be found in a box score.
“Blake’s composure and his leadership were what stood out to me,” said Ellis. “I’m sure he’d tell you he didn’t shoot as well as he wanted to, but he never let that affect the rest of his game, his rebounding and his leadership.
“I can’t say enough about the way Itchy (Holden) and Elijah Bull played, either. I just loved how their teammates played off of them, because I haven’t seen that before this year. Their tenacity and willingness to keep grinding at both ends of the floor really gave us superior guard play.”
Holden’s 21-point outburst in the afternoon semifinal included 6-of-9 marksmanship from 3-point distance. Evanston broke out to a 33-19 halftime advantage against a bigger and slower Chatham team and never looked back, with Gibson (12 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists) also making a major contribution.”
“It wasn’t easy to win this tournament,” Ellis said. “Each game I thought we played better, until tonight. At first we didn’t embrace what it would take to grind out a victory and we were more focused on the result than the process. That’s why we didn’t play as well in this one. But you could see the switch go on with about 4 minutes left in regulation, OK, this is going to be hard — and that’s fine with us.
“We want to learn as much from wins as losses. Winning a Christmas tournament isn’t really something you can hang your hat on as a team. It’s about getting experience, learning why you lose, and how you win.”