Mike Ellis often asks his basketball players to give themselves a grade based on daily practice results, and usually finds the responses to be refreshingly honest.
The Evanston head coach made that request for the first time after an actual game Tuesday night at Beardsley Gymnasium — and the best the unbeaten Wildkits could offer was a passing grade after outscoring Niles North 80-72 in a shootout.
Evanston’s 14th consecutive win this season came behind a balanced effort that offset a 36-point splurge by Niles North star Aquan Smart. The Wildkits, ranked No. 2 in the latest Associated Press Class 4A state poll, were led by Daeshawn Hemphill (20 points), Elijah Bull (18 points), Jaylin Gibson (13 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists), Blake Peters (13 points, 7 rebounds) and Isaiah Holden (10 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists).
“I just asked the guys in the locker room, and the grades ranged from a C-plus to a C-minus,” Ellis said. “This definitely wasn’t our A game. A lot of our guys thought we were just average tonight, and I agree with them.
“This is the first time I’ve asked them to give a grade after a game and they were right on. Give Niles North credit, because they came out and played with a purpose. I thought they wanted it more than we did, especially in the first half. We never made the effort plays off the ball and Niles North doubled us up on rebounds in the first half.
“Niles North tries to speed you up with their pressure and tonight was an NBA type game where you didn’t need a shot clock. Both teams were trying to score in less than 24 seconds. But we have the mindset we can play any style and be successful. We’re confident that we can control a slow-paced game, or an up and down game, if that’s what it takes.”
Niles North (12-3) leaned heavily on Smart, who sank 14-of-34 field goal attempts and blocked 2 shots. He netted 15 points in the first half, boosting the visitors to a 41-39 lead. The Wildkits, however, regrouped in the third quarter and closed out the period with a 7-2 run that gave them the lead for good.
Gibson scored back-to-back buckets in transition, including an emphatic dunk, and Peters — who eclipsed the 1,000 point career plateau in the championship game of the Centralia Holiday Tournament — was fouled on a 3-point try and sank all 3 free throws with half a second left in the quarter for a 61-56 ETHS lead.
No lead is safe against the free-wheeling Vikings, but a 3-pointer by Smart to pull them with 73-68 with 2 minutes to play proved to be the last gasp for the losers.
Evanston’s continued unselfish play was reflected in the statistic that showed Hemphill and Bull led the winners in shots attempted with 12 apiece. Bull scored a career-high 18 points on 6-of-12 shooting, and Hemphill’s 9-of-12 shooting left him just one point shy of his career best of 21 against Saint Viator.
“That’s been our method all year, that we use each other on offense,” Ellis pointed out. “We have too many good players out there you have to guard, no matter who has the basketball in their hands. Part of their scoring was being in the right place at the right time, when we made extra passes. They did a good job of picking their spots. It’s just a matter of finding the open man, and that’s been our strength all year.
“We’ve got a lot of sharers on this team. This is a very unselfish team.”
Niles North shot 30-of-66 from the field Tuesday, good for 45 percent, while the hosts connected on 51 percent (28-of-55) of their field goal attempts.
The victory in the first week of what will be a challenging month of January is part of a 3-game “homestand”, with a Friday Central Suburban League South division contest against Niles West and a non-conference matchup with Chicago Mather on tap on Saturday. Ellis believes that January is the most important month of the season.
“We’ve set our schedule up in the month of January to play tough teams and challenge ourselves,” he said. “It’s a chance for us to grow as a team. We have to understand what plays will win and lose games. Tonight, I thought we were in too much of a hurry.”