Navigating through an exhausting condensed schedule during the coronavirus pandemic, staying healthy, and playing with masks on were among the many challenges confronting the Evanston team during the 2021 high school basketball season.
And with the season on the line Wednesday night at Beardsley Gymnasium, the Wildkits kept the faith and kept their masks on.
But there was no more social distancing — especially on defense.
The Wildkits crowded Maine South on every possession, limiting the Hawks to just 4 field goals total over the first 3 quarters on their way to a 45-33 triumph and earned at least a share of the Central Suburban League South division championship for the 7th year in a row.
This time the Kits did it the hard way before tying both Glenbrook South and New Trier with 8-2 league records. Evanston (15-2 overall) was on the outside looking in after splitting a series with rival New Trier last weekend, but the Trevians kept Evanston’s hopes alive by rallying from a 22-point deficit on Monday to hold off GBS in the second game of that series.
Both Glenbrook South and New Trier swept their season-ending series against Glenbrook North and Niles West, respectively, this week to create the 3-way tie.
In the umpteenth must-win game a talented senior class has faced in 4 years of varsity challenges, Evanston relied on its suffocating defense to deliver another title. The Wildkits, with big men Ola Ajiboye and Prince Adams controlling the paint, were never really threatened by a Maine South team that pushed them to 3 overtimes when the teams met earlier in Park Ridge.
This time it was all Evanston. The Hawks netted 19 of their points in the fourth quarter against the ETHS bench.
It took the visitors almost 10 full minutes to score their first bucket of the game. Maine South shot just 25 percent (9-of-36) from the field and turned the ball over 8 times in the first quarter, when the champs first took control.
The defensive presence provided by the 6-foot-7 Ajiboye (4 points, 4 blocked shots) and 6-5 Adams (2 points, 1 block) effectively took South big man Marko Anderson out of the game. He finished with 7 points after tallying a game-high 22 in the earlier loss to ETHS.
In that game the Kits were missing both big men. Their return forced Anderson to pick on someone his own size, and Ajiboye rejected his very first shot attempt. And when the Hawks continued (as is their style of play) to force the ball inside, the Wildkits swarmed the paint with senior guard Isaiah Holden picking up 4 steals.
Evanston’s offense was paced by Blake Peters with 14 points and Daeshawn Hemphill with 12. South’s Sean Gallery scored a team-high 10 points, 6 of them coming at the free throw line.
“All of our guys came into the game with the agenda to really guard tonight,” said Evanston head coach Mike Ellis, who has guided ETHS to 7 conference titles in 11 years at the helm. “We played a lot of seniors (9 on Senior Night) with two lineups, and we put in defensive goals for each lineup. Their playing time was predicated on those goals, not on the score. It was really great to see that first group come out, meet those goals and establish the tempo tonight.
“Sometimes if you set the tone on offense and make a lot of 3-pointers, it almost seems too easy. I’ve seen just as many teams come out and set the defensive tone, and in my experience that lasts longer, sometimes for the full 32 minutes. Our anticipation tonight was one of our strongest attributes.
“They were either going to be the group to continue that conference streak, or be the group that ends it. It was the last game for the seniors at Beardsley, too, and we put it out there for the conference champion to take the spot in the Chipotle Clash of Champions (season-ending invitational tournament). Pick a reason why this win was important.”
Ellis allowed all 9 eligible seniors to play major roles in the contest, backing up the starters with a group consisting of Ethan Kye (8 minutes), Logan Talmage (8 minutes), Mac Brewer (8 minutes), Jake Vasilias (9 minutes), players who don’t normally get off the bench in crunch time. They all entered the game in the second quarter with ETHS leading 12-1, surrendered a couple of buckets, and then the starters returned to hold South scoreless over the last 5:37 and build a 20-6 lead.
A pair of 3-point baskets by Peters increased the edge to 30-14 after three periods and the championship was all but assured.
“The difference was night and day for us with Ola and Prince back,” Ellis acknowledged. “We’re a different team with those two on the floor. It was great to see them battle back in the classroom, and it’s very clear what they mean to us.
“We had a stretch of 7 games in 11 days — it’s mostly a blur to me — and when you do that and come out on top the way we did, then that’s a display of toughness. After that second New Trier game they did a great job of blocking out the outside noise, if this and if that, and did not look at it as a lost opportunity. Instead, Monday was our best practice of the year, and when I saw that I was really excited about the rest of the week.”
Evanston’s participation in the Chipotle Classic is part of a throwback to the Illinois High School Association state tournament, back to the days when teams had to win 3 games in 2 days to claim the state championship. First-round games on Friday are set for St. Patrick High School, where the Wildkits are matched against Notre Dame at 3 p.m. Other quarterfinal games pit Chicago Simeon against St. Patrick at 1 p.m., Whitney Young against DePaul Prep at 5 p.m., and Mundelein against Fenwick at 7 p.m.
Winners will advance to the semifinals at Notre Dame at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturday, with the title game slated there at 7 p.m.