Evanston’s boys’ basketball coaches talked to the players about the importance of playing better man-to-man defense at Wednesday’s shoot-around, and again in their pre-game chat prior to the third round of the St. Viator Thanksgiving tournament.
But the Wildkits still needed a reminder in the second half of the matchup with Antioch.
Head coach Mike Ellis yanked all five starters when the Kits fell behind briefly — at 23-22 — and didn’t send them back in until reserves Ephraim Chase and Colin McDonald had both nailed 3-point shots to send them ahead for good.
A renewed sense of purpose, sparked by a career night for senior Prince Adams, helped Evanston pull away for a 46-30 triumph, their second tourney win in as many tries.
Adams scored a career-high 18 points and ripped down 16 rebounds and most of that damage came after the second half wakeup call. The 6-foot-5 senior was the only player on either team to reach double figures on a night that was dominated by defense. Evanston’s man-to-man trumped the 1-3-1 zone used by the Sequoits as neither team shot better than 31 percent from the field.
Limiting Antioch to 10-of-40 shooting (25 percent) and forcing 16 turnovers, the Wildkits took a step forward on defense after Ellis was forced to abandon the man-to-man defense for a zone of his own the previous night.
But after a layup by Antioch’s Carter Webb and a 3-point basket by Nate Young wiped out Evanston’s halftime advantage in the first minute of the third quarter, Ellis had seen enough of his starters.
The unit of Chase, McDonald, Morgan Brown, Brandon Watson and Addison Blough stymied the Sequoits for the next three and a half minutes, and Antioch didn’t score at all in the last 4:35 of the period when the regulars got back on the court.
Leading 33-24 after three quarters, Evanston outscored the losers 13-6 in the final period to secure the victory.
“We couldn’t get things going and it was the second team that got US going tonight,” said Adams, who connected on 9-of-10 free throws and also contributed 4 steals and 2 blocked shots. “We all played with a lot more energy after that and what the second team did for us tonight was crucial.
“Playing defense is my favorite thing and I don’t really like it when we play a zone because you’re guarding a spot, not a man. Our offense still needs work, but I felt like we made a big improvement on defense tonight.”
“I think all of the starters knew it wasn’t their best effort tonight when I took them out. And they should know that just because you’re a starter, that doesn’t mean the job is yours. Playing time has to be earned, and we weren’t playing with a sense of urgency on defense,” Ellis explained.
“I think the message was sent — if you want to play, you need to play defense. We won’t ever be a good defensive team if defense isn’t something everybody hangs their hat on. The belief in it has to be there.”
Evanston had difficulty solving Antioch’s zone and will likely see more of the same during the season. But the defending tournament champions — Evanston hasn’t lost in the round-robin event since 2017 — found enough answers to lead 12-8 at the first quarter stop and 22-18 at halftime.
“We felt like our defense would be our offense today because that’s the strength of our team,” added Ellis. “We don’t have a dominant offensive player, so if you get stops (on defense), then you can get out and run and you don’t have to play a halfcourt game.
“Prince is a very talented player and he did an outstanding job tonight. He found opportunities in the halfcourt and in the full court. He’s a very versatile player. And we did get a little better effort on defense on the ball tonight. We won as many of the 1-on-1 battles as we could.”
Evanston meets Prospect on Friday at 3:30 p.m. in the next-to-last round of the tournament.