Every year former Evanston basketball coach Herb Williams, a legendary figure in this southern Illinois community, gives a talk to the Wildkits during the Centralia Holiday Tournament.

Williams’ locker room speech this year addressed the issue of potential – and how the current Kits could best live up to their own expectations.

The Wildkits tapped a little deeper into their own potential during their three-day stay, winning 3 of 4 games here and claiming a second-place finish at the 78th annual tournament. They opened with wins over Cahokia (70-43) and Muhlenberg, Ky. (43-35) and then earned a split against a pair of unbeaten teams on Thursday, dumping host Centralia 54-44 before bowing to powerful St. Louis Vashon 61-38 in the championship game.

That loss denied Evanston a chance to win its second straight tourney crown after they ruled in 2019, prior to the coronavirus pandemic that canceled last year’s event.

An ETHS team that hasn’t always played with the basketball IQ and toughness – at least so far – that has been the program trademark over a past decade of excellence under head coach Mike Ellis, made progress in those areas while improving to 9-3 at the halfway point of the season.

Ellis still doesn’t know what to expect from his squad in the 2022 portion of the campaign. But he’s closer now to knowing what the rotation of minutes is narrowing down to for the top 7 or 8 players, even though on-court chemistry is still a work in progress for a team that only returned one starter from a year ago.

All-tournament selections David Gieser (first team) and Rashawn Bost (second team) helped the Wildkits put their best foot forward following Williams’ talk with the Wildkits on the second day of the tourney.

“What Coach Williams said to them is that having potential is one thing, but it has to produce some results,” said Ellis. “This is an unselfish group of kids and it’s an accomplishment to have nine wins so far. We played well right away when we came down here. I was impressed with our rebounding up until [the loss to Vashon], and we had good flow on offense in our first two games. And our defense was more impressive here than in our past games.

“But consistency is something we’ll have to ask ourselves about when we look in the mirror and turn the page to a new year. We need to hold each other more accountable, and we need to make more plays. Winning is more important than one or two guys playing well. We’ll be more consistent when we put others first. We have to understand it’s the little things that make up the big picture.

“It’s a team sport and it’s really all about Evanston playing well. When we all have that frame of mind, we have the potential to be a good team.”

The Wildkits got an up-close and personal look at what a good team looks like – twice – on the final day of competition. They used their most balanced effort of the season to foil Centralia’s chance to play for the title this year and it marked the third straight time that ETHS has defeated the host Orphans in tourney play.

The semifinal triumph featured the trio of Prince Adams (11 points, 10 rebounds), Gieser (16 points) and Bost (11 points, 4 assists, 2 steals) taking turns in the spotlight for the winners. Evanston trailed 35-28 midway through the third quarter but rallied for a 38-37 lead by the end of the period as Gieser drilled a pair of 3-point shots and added a rebound basket, while Bost connected on a runner as the clock ran out.

In the fourth quarter, a 9-1 run to start the period featured a pair of buckets by Bost, another triple by Gieser and a drive for a score by Aidan Maher for ETHS.

“That six-minute stretch [covering both quarters] was really a good one for us,” said Ellis. “That was one of the better team games we’ve played this year, at both ends of the floor. That was our most complete game of the season.

 “We found the guy with the hot hand today, and that’s difficult to guard when you do that. I thought our guys did a great job of focusing on executing, and we played a little smarter, even the guys without the ball did that. Our execution, our discipline and our team unity were the three biggest factors tonight.

“At the start of the season, these guys really didn’t know what they were good at. They’re learning as they go. You need to be responsible for knowing what you’re good at, and what you’re NOT good at, and then it comes down to playing to your strengths.”

Gieser, the senior transfer from Fenwick, was selected to the all-tournament first team along with Most Valuable Player N.J. Benson of Mount Vernon, Koby Wilmoth of Centralia, Kennard Davis of Vashon and Traeshawn White of Confluence, Tenn. But the newest Wildkit didn’t feel like celebrating that honor after going 0-for-11 from the floor (0-of-8 from 3-point range) as Evanston shot just 30% from the field in the finale versus Vashon.

The Missouri power, which has also defeated Illinois squads North Lawndale and St. Rita in shootouts earlier this season, improved to 12-0 and toyed with the Kits while outrebounding them 35-23. Jayden Nicholson’s 16 points led the Wolverines, who also got 11 from Mike Hampton and 10 from Cameron Stovall.

Darryl Jones came off the bench to net 8 points for Evanston and added 5 rebounds. ETHS shot just 14-of-46 from the floor, 2-of-14 from 3-point range.

Vashon pushed the lead to 34-22 at halftime and expanded that advantage to 48-28 after three quarters.

“I just didn’t think we did anything that was fundamentally sound tonight,” noted Ellis. “We tried to do things out of our framework and Vashon did all the little things better than us. Our execution just wasn’t solid enough.”

Evanston disposed of Cahokia in the opener by connecting on 10 3-point baskets in a 70-43 romp, as Gieser poured in a game-high 20 points and junior Malachi Barrett tallied 11. The winners shot exactly 50% (27-of-54) from the field.

The quarterfinal triumph over Muhlenberg  was a defensive duel and Evanston played that end of the floor with a capital D. In the second half, the Kentucky squad scored just 1 field goal in the first 15 minutes, and only 3 for the entire half.

“That’s a well-disciplined, well-coached team, and to hold them to 3 baskets in a half speaks to what we’re capable of doing on defense,” said Ellis. “Whenever we did make mistakes, we responded with some defensive stops, and that was critical for us.”

Gieser’s 9 points, plus 7 points and 11 rebounds by Isaiah Moore, led Evanston.

The Wildkits resume Central Suburban League South division play on Jan. 7 at Maine South.