Isaiah Holden has evolved as a player into one of those do-whatever-it-takes performers that every high school basketball team needs.
Tuesday night in the semifinals of the Class 4A Elk Grove sectional tournament, it took a perfect effort by the junior guard at the free throw line to keep Evanston’s season alive.
Holden, a 67 percent marksman at the free throw line coming into the game, sank six straight charity tosses in the final 91 seconds as the Wildkits eliminated Glenbrook South 62-57 in a game played at the Robert Morris University campus in Arlington Heights.
Evanston, now 29-4 on the season, will return to that same site Friday at 7 p.m. for the championship game against Loyola Academy. The top-seeded Ramblers smothered Niles North 48-24 in Tuesday’s other semifinal contest.
Clutch play in the fourth quarter by Holden (16 points, 4 assists) and Jaylin Gibson (16 points, 5 steals) combined with a game-high 18 points from Blake Peters sent the Wildkits to the sectional finals for the 4th year in a row. At the other end, the Wildkits limited GBS star Dominic Martinelli to 18 points and the Titans — who set a school record for wins in a season this winter but have never won a sectional championship — bowed out with a 29-5 record.
Holden is no stranger to end of game heroics in his first year as a starter, and Tuesday he delivered 9 points in the final period to help the winners overcome a 43-42 deficit at the start of the fourth quarter against a Titan team that split a pair of decisions against ETHS and shared the Central Suburban League South division championship with the Kits during the regular season.
Tuesday, a good start led to a better finish for the Wildkits, who outscored South 20-14 over the last 8 minutes.
Holden and Gibson (4-of-6) took turns closing out the win at the free throw line with the game on the line.
“We don’t really have a closer. There’s not a guy on the floor that I’d say give up the ball to, and we’ve got confidence in everyone,” pointed out Evanston coach Mike Ellis. “Whoever it is, when you get fouled, you have to take advantage of that opportunity. The sport — and the playoffs — are all about results. And the results we had in the fourth quarter really made the difference for us.
“Itchy (Holden) is a multi-dimensional player who can be a set-up guy for the others, he can penetrate, he can be a scorer. He does whatever the team needs to win and that’s why he made all-conference this year (along with Peters and Gibson). He has a very well-rounded game.”
Holden’s free throw with 3:30 remaining gave the Kits a 50-48 edge after South reserve Charlie Fink missed layups on back-to-back possessions for the Titans. Then, out of a spread offense, Holden connected on a drive for a 4-point advantage.
The Wildkits started to parade to the free throw line at that point and converted 10-of-12 down the stretch to send the Titans to the sidelines.
“Late in the game, knowing I’d have a lot of pressure on me, I just took a deep breath and took my time at the free throw line, just like the coaches are always telling us,” Holden said. “I just took it 1 at a time. I wanted to do whatever I could to help our team win.
“I think this was probably our best game since we beat Bloom (on January 25th). When times got tough tonight, we had to keep our composure and I think we did a good job. We did a good job of containing Martinelli, too, between Blake and Jaylin. They did a good job of cutting his (scoring) average way down. That really helped, because if he got going, they’d have won the game.”
Martinelli, who torched the Kits for a combined 65 points in the first two meetings, led the Titans with 18 points on 6-of-13 shooting from the field but wasn’t a factor in the second half after netting 10 points in the first half.
Also in double figures for GBS, which shot 51 percent (22-of-43) on the night, were Danny Pauletto with 12 points and sophomore Cooper Noard with 11.
Evanston opened the game with 12 unanswered points, but in the third quarter it was the Titans’ turn to seize the momentum after avoiding what could have been an early knockout punch. South answered with a 12-0 run of its own to turn the game into a nailbiter again in the third quarter, as Pauletto took advantage of Evanston’s help-side defense versus Martinelli and notched 3 layups of his own.
“We have basketball players here who are winners, who are competitors,” Ellis praised. “I don’t know if we always played smart tonight, but we played with a lot of heart. I felt there was no way we could keep the momentum (of that early double digit lead) for 32 minutes, and that they’d take the momentum at some point.
“But we did a nice job of responding in that last 8 minutes. We played with a lot of poise. We didn’t panic, we didn’t point fingers or make excuses. We just stayed in the present and went on to the next play. Our guys did a nice job of sticking together.
“These were two evenly matched teams. GBS is a really good team with some seniors who didn’t want their careers to end. That’s what we were up against tonight and that’s what we’ll be up against when we play Loyola. Loyola’s seniors don’t want their season to stop, either. It will be a huge challenge for us.”