Elijah Bull wasn’t around at the start of Evanston’s basketball game against Oak Park-River Forest Saturday.
But he was there at the finish and helped the Wildkits end a 2-game losing skid with a much needed 54-45 non-conference triumph over the Huskies.
Bull, who lost his starting job because he missed Friday’s practice with cold symptoms, cashed in 2 vital free throws with 31 seconds remaining and then added a clinching layup to secure Evanston’s 21st victory against 3 defeats. The Wildkits scored the last 6 points of the game after Oak Park had closed to within 48-45.
The ability to “lock in” helped the junior guard convert in a bonus situation, even though he’s not usually the team’s go-to guy at the charity stripe in the final moments of a close game. Both of his makes came after a couple of misses by the usually reliable Jaylin Gibson in the last minute, and helped Evanston fans breathe a sigh of relief.
No one knows how much avoiding a 3rd straight loss will impact the season going forward, but Bull acknowledged that he and his teammates felt enough was enough.
“I work on free throws every day in practice, and those were super big for me,” Bull said. “It was just focus and concentration. After we got that second loss (at Glenbrook South) it was very upsetting for all of us. The coaches got us back together and said now we just have to move on from it. It’s tough, but we knew we had to. We couldn’t stay sad about it.
“I think the difference is that we have to come out stronger in the first quarter, instead of waiting too long and falling behind in games. We need to lock in and focus right from the beginning, and we came out strong tonight.”
Blake Peters (17 points, 6 rebounds) and Gibson (16 points, 10 rebounds) supplied the offense for the hosts, who never trailed in the second half but couldn’t put the pesky Huskies away until the final minute.
ETHS had to overcome another poor shooting night (5-of-24) from 3-point range, but a “downhill” attack that resulted in several drives to the basket initiated a better start than usual for the host team.
“We were really too aggressive initially in our last two games,” pointed out Evanston assistant coach Rudy Meo. “Because we were a little more patient tonight at the start of the game, the lane started to open up and then we got cleaner and easier looks at the basket.
“It does feel good to be able to get a win and move past those two losses. The kids were definitely disappointed about the games we lost. The other teams (Loyola Academy and Glenbrook South) played a little harder and a little tougher than we did, and that bothers you when that happens.”
Meo said Bull was just as good an option to close out the game as anyone ETHS had on the floor at that point, even though he hasn’t scored much this season. “He can handle the ball (against pressure) and I think we had the right guy in there at that point,” Meo said. “The way we run our offense when we’re in delay mode, we want to make sure the guys we trust have the ball in their hands, and Elijah is one of them.
“Those free throws were huge for his confidence. Some of his shots haven’t been falling lately, and seeing it go through the net like that always gives a player confidence.”
Evanston shot just 39 percent (19-of-49) from the field overall, but limited the Huskies to 40 percent, or 16-of-40. Junior Josh Smith netted 16 points for OPRF (12-8 overall), but classmate Isaiah Barnes was limited to 11 points on 4-of-12 shooting and also turned the ball over 5 times. Barnes only scored 3 points in the second half with the game on the line.
“We knew going in that Barnes would lead them in (shot) attempts, and we just wanted to make those shots a little more difficult than he’s used to,” Meo confided.
A Gibson layup, off a steal from Isaiah Holden, pushed the Wildkits to a 37-30 lead late in the third quarter, only to see OPRF close out the quarter with a bucket by Rashaad Trice and a pair of free throws by Smith.
Back-to-back 3-point baskets by Gibson and Peters early in the fourth quarter gave the winners some breathing room and led up to Bull’s finishing touch.