Yaris Irby wasn’t trying to be selfish.
It just turned out that the best decision he could make was to keep the ball in his own hands with the clock winding down on Evanston’s season basketball opener Tuesday night at the 44th annual Saint Viator Thanksgiving Classic tournament.
The freshman point guard sank a driving layup with 2 seconds left on the clock, lifting the Wildkits to a 53-51 victory over Libertyville.
That decision-making ability is something the ETHS coaching staff recognized in Irby right away, and it’s one reason head coach Mike Ellis trusted Irby to be on the floor in the first place with the game on the line and the Kits trailing 51-50.
The 5-foot-10 first year player surveyed the court, weighed his options over the last 16 seconds, then drove down the lane to flip in a left-handed shot — he’s a natural lefty — off the glass for the game-winner. Rashawn Bost added a free throw after Libertyville turned the ball over on the inbound pass.
Irby had beaten the same defender, Will Buchert, on a similar drive to the bucket with 1:04 left in the contest, pulling the winners to within 51-49. He ended up calling his own number again at the end.
“I looked at the first option, which was Rashawn on the wing, but they took that away,” said the ETHS guard. “Their (Libertyville) kid jumped the play. The second option was David (Gieser), but there was a big guy there with long arms and I didn’t want to throw a risky pass in there. I knew I could beat the kid guarding me to the basket, so I took it in.
“It was a big moment, I know. I have mixed emotions, though, because I know I need to bring that same energy tomorrow night. I’m just looking forward to our next game.”
“You could tell that he was searching out his teammates, like a point guard does, because he’s an unselfish player,” Ellis said. “He ended up having to create a shot for himself and he did it.
“Yaris plays with moxie and with confidence and I felt comfortable with his ability to read the defense and make a play there at the end. With freshmen, you’re always concerned about whether they can play defense (at the varsity level), but we know he has the skill set to make plays at the offensive end.
“A lot of guys will be in that position for us for the first time this year. We care about your decision making and the results — not when your birthday is.”
Libertyville, which blew out Prospect in the first round of the tournament on Monday, put together an 11-3 run to take a 51-47 advantage with 2:40 remaining behind 6-foot-8 senior Chase Bonder (19 points, 8 rebounds).
The Wildkits missed their next two field goal attempts, but Irby’s drive at the 1:04 mark kept them within striking distance, and Prince Adams forced a Wildcat turnover 16 seconds later to set up a heroic finish.
Irby didn’t even enter the game until midway through the third quarter and sank all 3 of his shots, including 3-pointer on his very first attempt. He finished with 7 points and three of his teammates — Bost, Gieser and Adams — each scored 9 for the winners.
Evanston only turned the ball over 9 times in the game, although 4 of those miscues came in the final period, and the Wildkits showed a remarkable ability to play together in their season debut, especially considering so many are new to each other as teammates and that Bost is the lone returning starter.
That early cohesion showed through in 21-of-49 shooting from the floor as the Kits were credited with 10 assists and showed no inclination to play “hero ball” trying to make a lasting early impression on the ETHS coaching staff as they try to sort out playing time in the first week of the season.
Gieser, a transfer from Fenwick, said he wasn’t surprised by the team’s balanced effort.
“I noticed all throughout our practices, throughout the preseason and even in the open gyms, that all of my teammates are very interested in making each other better,” said the senior forward, who tied Adams for rebounding honors with 7 apiece. “For them it’s not about who can score 45 points and stuff the stats box.
“The lesson I take away from this game is that we relaxed too much on defense in the fourth quarter. We let them get some second chance points and in those small moments we let them get the momentum.”
“It was a good first game for us because it taught us so many lessons. We had the lead, we let it get away, and we came back,” Ellis pointed out. “They hurt us with both their perimeter play, and their dribble drives, so we’ve got a lot to work on.”
Evanston surged ahead 37-25 midway through the third quarter, but the Wildcats fought their way back and only trailed 42-36 by the end of the period.
Irby’s 3-pointer from the corner helped stretch the lead to double digits. Evanston’s newest hero said he was surprised to even make the varsity roster after suffering a “turf toe” injury at the end of the football season that limited his effectiveness during tryouts. Tuesday, he put the hurt on Libertyville.