The postgame handshake line resembled a somber funeral procession and there was no raucous celebration from the winners even while they were cutting down the nets Friday night at the Class 4A Maine East regional tournament championship game.
That’s how much the Evanston and New Trier basketball players respect the ancient rivalry.
And that’s how exhausting playing in-your-face defense can be — on both sides.
The Wildkits utilized their big game experience and superior defense to grind out a 49-46 victory over the Trevians and secured a berth in the sectional semifinals against Glenbrook South.
ETHS joined regional champions GBS, Loyola Academy and Niles North for the next step on the postseason path, with a doubleheader set for Tuesday starting at 6 p.m. at the Robert Morris University campus in Arlington Heights. The title game is next Friday at 7 p.m.
An air-ball from 20 feet by New Trier star John Carragher on the losers’ last possession kept Evanston’s season alive at 28-4, while the Trevs bowed out with a final mark of 18-11. Evanston also swept the regular season series between the two rivals, has won 15 of the last 16 games between the two, and now owns an overall edge all-time with 120 wins to New Trier’s 95.
No shot went unchallenged and every pass was contested before the Wildkits were able to beat the losers at their own game. New Trier had held the Kits to 50 points and 49 points in two prior meetings this year.
Friday, clutch performances by juniors Jaylin Gibson and Blake Peters kept the momentum on Evanston’s side before Carragher’s final miss. Peters provided an early scoring punch, finishing with a game-high 14 points, and Gibson’s two bonus free throws with 25 seconds to play clinched the struggle. Gibson scored just 6 points but also contributed 5 rebounds and 5 assists.
Elijah Bull chipped in 11 points for the Wildkits, who shot 47 percent (18-of-38) from the floor compared to New Trier’s 41 percent (17-of-41). Carragher (11 points) and Jaden Katz (12) paced the Trevians.
ETHS head coach Mike Ellis almost completely lost his voice but praised the play of his two junior leaders.
“Jaylin and Blake are the guys the others look to for leadership in big games, and they really came through tonight,” Ellis whispered. “New Trier knows us so well, we know them, and to get that third win against them was not easy. We went on a run, then they went on a run, and we had the last run.
“We did a good job of finishing in the last 2 minutes. Our defense was so good in that second quarter (holding the Trevians scoreless for more than 6 minutes) and that helped us get some momentum.”
Evanston stretched its string of Illinois High School Association regional championships to 7 in a row and Peters has played a big role in the last 3.
“Of the 3 regional championship games I’ve played in, this was probably the most challenging. We really had to grind it out tonight,” Peters said. “I know some of their players pretty well and New Trier has a great team. This will make us tougher mentally and physically now going into the sectional.
“My Dad gave me the Rocky speech before the game. He told me it would take a Rocky effort to win this game. It’s hard to beat a team 3 times, and I’m just glad we came out with a win. Offensively, we struggled a little, but the theme of our season has been to find a way to win.
“At the end I told the guys this (1-possession game) is nothing new. We’ve been through it over and over against some solid competition.”
Gibson had to put two earlier misses at the free throw line out of his mind to focus again at the charity stripe with the Kits clinging to a 47-46 edge following a Carragher 3-point bucket. The junior standout, a 76 percent marksman on the season, swished both tosses for the final points of the contest.
“I just had to move on (from the misses),” he said. “I think I rushed it a little then, so at the end I just took my time.
“It feels so good to beat New Trier 3 times. Playing in big games against big teams has helped us a lot. We know what we have to do to win. One of our goals as a team is to get 27 deflections (or steals). I’m not sure how many we had tonight, but I thought this was one of our best defensive games. We stuck together, and we were able to get stops and convert them when we needed to.”
Even while pitching a shutout for most of the second quarter, ETHS had to settle for just a 26-21 advantage at halftime due to a bucket by Carragher and a 3-point bomb by Sean McNeely in the final 90 seconds of the half.
The Trevians overcame a 7-point deficit in the third quarter with a 9-0 run to seize the lead at 32-30 with 3:42 left in the period. That turned out to be their last lead of the game.
Isaiah Holden’s short jumper in the lane lifted the Kits to a 42-40 advantage, but Evanston fans writhed in agony in the stands when the Kits turned the ball over on the next 3 possessions. New Trier, however, couldn’t capitalize and a clutch 3-pointer from the corner by Peters and a pair of Bull free throws kept Evanston in control at 47-43 with 77 seconds left in regulation. Carragher missed a 3-point attempt, then made one, and his misfire on a contested try at the end sealed New Trier’s fate.