The foundation that Mike Ellis has built for the success of Evanston’s basketball program since he arrived starts with man-to-man defense.

All things being equal, the ETHS coach wants that to be the case every year. But sometimes you have to switch to Plan B – even when you don’t want to.

ETHS Twitter

Ellis certainly got the desired results when the Wildkits changed to a 1-3-1 zone defense in a season-opening 65-55 throttling of Libertyville at the 45th annual St. Viator Thanksgiving tournament Tuesday.

Trailing by 2 points at halftime, the defending champs outscored Libertyville 28-6 over the next 13 minutes and eventually stretched the lead to 20 points in their 2022 season debut.

Evanston resumes action at the round-robin tourney at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday against Antioch, then closes out the schedule with games against Prospect (Friday at 3:30) and host St. Viator (Saturday at 3).

After leading 31-29 at the halftime intermission, Libertyville shot just 2-of-15 against Evanston’s zone in the third quarter. The Wildcats, now 1-1 in tourney play, converted only 6-of-27 attempts from 3-point range with a hand or two in their faces on most of those tries. Libertyville only scored two field goals in that 13-minute stretch that decided the clash between the two teams that appear to be the most talented in the field.

ETHS relied on a balanced effort from Malachi Barrett (16 points), Hunter Duncan (13 points, 5 steals), Prince Adams (10 points, 8 rebounds) and Jonah Ross (9 points) to take Libertyville down. The losers received 23-point performances from Aidyn Boone and Will Buchert.

With both Adams and newcomer Josh Thomas picking up 2 personal fouls in the first half, the Wildkits couldn’t get untracked after building an early lead. So Ellis decided a change was necessary in the third quarter.

“I just felt like Libertyville’s actions and sets on offense were hurting us in the man-to-man,” said the veteran Evanston coach, “so we had to go to our SOS defense. We shouldn’t have HAD to switch, but once we found a groove with that zone, then we stayed with it. We were able to get some turnovers out of it and they missed a lot of shots.

“I am surprised the zone was that effective.  Our defense was way better in the second half. Libertyville’s a good basketball team with very skilled players, inside and outside.  They’re always in the mix [to win] here and I told our guys coming in that tonight was the championship game and don’t think you can wait until Saturday for that. I said they’d have a clear path to winning the tournament if they won tonight because they’d already played a game. They got the message in the second half and took turns stepping up and playing with a lot more urgency.”

Evanston still trailed 34-33 when Boone swished a 3-point try early in the third quarter. But then Barrett sank a pair of free throws, Ross connected from 17 feet and Adams smashed down a tip-dunk on a missed shot as the champs took control. Two more buckets by Barrett – one of them a trey – boosted Evanston’s advantage to 44-37 by the end of the third period.

The Wildkits reeled off the first 13 points of the fourth quarter to put the contest out of reach before the Cats mustered their first basket with 3 minutes, 3 seconds left in the game.

“We didn’t have our best lineup in the first half [due to foul trouble],” Ellis explained. “As the game went on we played a little harder and a little smarter. So many times a different person stepped up for us in the second half. Ephraim [Chase] stepped up, Prince stepped up, Malachi stepped up, Hunter stepped up.

“You don’t win when you have peaks and valleys, but they were all good for a stretch tonight.”  

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