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Mike Ellis has asked a lot of his senior class over the past 4 years in the Evanston basketball program.
But the Wildkit coach couldn’t demand that they each grow 5 inches in between games of the Chipotle Clash of Champions invitational tournament on Saturday.
Unable to deal with 6-foot-10 inch opposing center Brian Mathews, the Wildkits settled for a runnerup finish in the season-ending event with a 51-36 loss to DePaul Prep at Notre Dame High School in Niles.
Mathews’ 19-point performance and a stingy Rams’ defense — Evanston was held to its second lowest point total of the season — ended the accomplished careers of 10 ETHS seniors as the Kits finished the coronavirus-shortened season with a final record of 17-3.
Blake Peters netted 18 points for the Kits, who rallied earlier in the day to eliminate Chicago Simeon with a 56-47 triumph in the semifinals.
The 2021 campaign marked the fourth straight year that the Wildkits were still alive on the final day of the season, a record few programs can match, even though there’s an asterisk attached because the 2020 season was halted the day of the sectional championship games throughout Illinois.
But Evanston’s record speaks for itself, including Final Four appearances for the senior class as freshmen and sophomores.
“This is a special group of seniors, and it’s a great accomplishment for them to still be playing the final day of the season,” said Ellis. “We’re not going to measure their legacy on one evening in this tournament. Our main message to them (after the game) was thank you, for taking and elevating the program to another level.
“When they came in here as freshmen there was a special group before them, and I don’t think anyone expected them to reach the heights they reached. I’m really going to miss this group. They’re high character, great people and I don’t think people fully understand the sacrifices and commitment that they made.”
Wildkit fans knew a tourney title was probably out of reach at halftime, after ETHS endured probably its worst half of the season and trailed 31-14. The magic number was zero — for the number of 3-point shots sunk by the Kits, and the number of DePaul turnovers to that point.
That’s not a winning combination for most teams.
“We seemed out of sorts right from the start of the game,” Ellis acknowledged. “We could have been up 7-0, but we couldn’t finish any plays. DePaul is a very good team, offensively and defensively. We played side to side on offense and we settled for too many 3s too soon (0-for-7 at the half). You really dig yourselves a hole if you don’t attack a good team both inside and outside. It was just too big a hill for us to climb.”
Evanston tried 6-7 senior Ola Ajiboye and 6-5 sophomore Prince Adams against the bigger and stronger Mathews with little to no success, and at one point, Ellis even called on seldom-used 6-8 junior Jack Tully to try to limit the damage done in the paint.
Mathews notched 12 of his points in the first half and finished 7-of-11 shooting from the floor.
“You’ve gotta give Mathews credit. To me, he was the player of the game,” said Ellis. “We’ve got a very talented group — of guards, and his size was definitely something DePaul could take advantage of. We couldn’t keep the ball out of the paint. They lived in the paint tonight.”
Evanston did close to within 8 points thanks to a late 8-0 run in the third period. Peters connected on back-to-back 3-point attempts, and when he missed, Daeshawn Hemphill scored on a putback to narrow the gap to 38-29. But the Kits could get no closer than that, with no one to support Peters on offense.
Evanston’s next best offensive output was 4 points apiece from Adams, Hemphill and Elijah Bull.
One highlight for the losers was the all-around play of Bull. He limited Loyola University recruit Ty Johnson to just 9 points, all of them coming in transition and not against Bull in the halfcourt man-to-man matchup. Bull also sparkled in the win over Simeon earlier Saturday and played some of his best basketball in a Wildkit uniform over the last 2 weeks of the season.
“They came out aggressively and put the pressure on us, similar to what we do to other teams,” Bull said. “We just kept pushing and I’m happy with the way we fought back. We just didn’t get the result we wanted tonight.
“We treated this like the state tournament. It was taken away from us last year, and this year too, so our goal was to come in and win this tournament. We wanted to end our senior year with a win. We just couldn’t get the job done. But I’m grateful for all the moments I had here at Evanston. We sacrificed a lot, and we definitely gave it our all tonight.”
Like they did in the tournament opener against Notre Dame, the Wildkits rallied in the fourth quarter to dump Simeon. Adams scored a career-high 16 points, displaying poise and persistence in the paint, and the Kits outscored the perennial Chicago Public school power Wolverines 18-7 in the fourth period.
Evanston fell behind 40-38 after three quarters, but took control to start the final stanza with an 8-0 run that featured Hemphill’s 3-pointer from the corner, a basket and a free throw by Adams, and a drive for a lay-in by junior Rashawn Bost.
Adams scored two more buckets to keep Simeon (7-1) at bay. He finished 6-of-10 from the floor and grabbed 6 rebounds, and didn’t seem affected by the Simeon mystique as the only player who hasn’t been in many big moments for ETHS so far in his career.
“I loved how both Prince and Rashawn didn’t back down from the challenge,” Ellis praised. “It shows real signs of growth in such an abbreviated season. It took multiple efforts from multiple guys for 32 minutes for us to pull this off.
“Prince played terrific today. He’s got a real future, and I just hope he comes back and plays even better when the stakes are higher.”
Hemphill scored 12 points and added 6 rebounds for the winners, who limited Simeon to 3-of-15 shooting from 3-point range and 39 percent (17-of-44) shooting overall.