No high school basketball program in Illinois plays better man-to-man defense on an annual basis than Loyola Academy.

That’s what made Evanston’s 52-38 victory over the Ramblers Monday night, Jan. 17, at Beardsley Gymnasium so sweet.

The Wildkits ended a two-game losing streak by beating the Ramblers at their own game and chalked up a non-conference win that will have seeding implications farther down the road when coaches vote to rank the contenders for the Class 4A Illinois High School Association sectional tournament.

How solid was Evanston on defense? The Wildkits limited the Ramblers to just two field goals over the last 9 minutes, and seldom-used ETHS guard Aidan Maher scored more points than Loyola’s entire team in that final stretch.

The convincing triumph didn’t come without extra motivation for the hosts. Besides the obvious implications of a neighborhood rivalry matchup, the Wildkits dedicated the contest to teammate Darryl Jones Jr., who is in intensive care in an Evanston hospital with COVID-related illness.

Evanston, now 12-6 overall, used a balanced attack led by Yaris Irby (13 points) and Prince Adams (11 points, 7 rebounds) to knock off the 15-5 Ramblers. Maher tossed in 9 key points for the winners, who led 39-31 after three quarters and never allowed the visitors to get any closer.

Loyola was paced by Alex Engro’s 16 points, but the losers only shot 38% (13-of-34) from the field.

“Loyola is well-known for the defense they play, and we wanted to come out tonight and make sure people look at our defense as well,” said Evanston head coach Mike Ellis. “Give our guys a lot of credit for the way they regrouped at halftime. They valued the ball on offense [only 14 turnovers] and valued the stops on defense.

“Loyola is hard to score on and I agree, I think we beat them at their own game tonight. They’re the most fundamental, most disciplined, toughest team you’ll find to play against in this area. But our defense has given us a chance to win almost all of our games and I’ve never been discouraged by our willingness to play defense. Our frustration this year has come from the mistakes we make on offense and our lack of execution on the offensive end. It’s just hard to win with defense when the offense can’t keep pace.”

Evanston solved that issue by playing with a lead for most of the night Monday. Loyola mustered a 14-13 halftime lead by outscoring the Kits 4-2 in a lackluster offensive second quarter on both sides, with a putback by Connor Casper in the final minute providing that slight advantage.

Both teams heated up in the third quarter. Irby fired in 8 quick points, including a pair of 3-point baskets, as part of a 13-6 ETHS run. Loyola sliced into the lead, however, and narrowed the gap to 36-31 on a 3-point basket with 46 seconds left by Miles Boland, his only basket of the game.

Loyola had a chance to wait for the last shot when the visitors regained the ball on an inbound violation. Instead, Max Garcia missed a 3-point try on the inbound play, and Maher sank a shot from deep in the left corner to keep the Kits in a comfort zone, leading 38-31 when the buzzer sounded.

Maher threw in a one-handed baseline runner to open the fourth quarter and, after Evanston spread out on offense midway through the period, drilled another 3-point basket to seal the win. The senior captain sank 3-of-4 field goal attempts and also registered 3 steals off the bench.

“Aidan played steady for us tonight, and that’s what we needed,” Ellis praised. “He doesn’t get many minutes, but we’ve never lost confidence in him as a player. He’s our smartest player and he knows how to make the right plays, the right reads. He probably knows the scouting report better than the coaching staff.

“He made some big shots tonight. It’s not easy to shoot with confidence like that when you don’t play a lot of extended minutes. What I liked was to the way we played complementary basketball to set up some of those shots for him and Yaris. We wanted to play more through each other, and we did that a lot better tonight than we have the past few weeks.

“We’ve talked a lot about how important the month of January is and this is a game we have to build on. It’s all about stacking [consecutive] good games at this point, and this game tonight allowed us to turn some things around and hopefully take some forward steps.”