Members of the Evanston boys basketball team, especially newcomers to the program, spent the months of June through December learning just what is and isn’t a good shot for themselves and their teammates.
That’s a lesson that’s been pretty well received, even if the Wildkits had to settle for another runner-up finish at the Centralia Holiday Tournament on Friday night.
After shooting approximately 50% as a team from the field in their first three tournament games, the Kits could only find that kind of flow on offense for half the title game of the 79th annual Christmas event and lost to Cardinal Ritter High School of St. Louis 58-52.
Evanston shot just 4-of-14 from the floor after leading by 4 points entering the fourth quarter. Since joining the field at the downstate tournament, the Wildkits have placed fifth in 2017, third in 2018, first in 2019 and second in 2021. The event was canceled in 2020 due to Covid.
Veteran ETHS head coach Mike Ellis saw his squad falter on offense after leading scorer Prince Adams fouled out with 4 minutes and 3 seconds left in the game.
For the game, Evanston converted 20-of-55 shots (36%) against a rangy and athletic Lions’ defense while falling to 11-4 in the 2022 portion of the schedule.
The Wildkits resume Central Suburban League South division play at 3 p.m. next Friday in a matinee home game against Maine South High School.
Adams, who was named to the five-player all-tournament first team, and Ephraim Chase each netted 11 points for Evanston. Cardinal Ritter, which started a lineup consisting solely of juniors, was led by tourney MVP Clayton Jackson with 16 points and Nashawn Davis with 13 while improving to 10-3 overall.
Both Jackson and Davis played big roles down the stretch for the winners.
“This was our third year in a row playing in the finals, and that’s a lot better than NOT being able to play in the championship game,” Ellis said. “Tonight we had control of the game for a half, and they had control of the game for a half. We took some poor percentage shots and we just had some shots that didn’t fall in the fourth quarter. We had people who were trying to do too much.
“We did get the experience of being together on the road as a team – that’s something we needed to learn – and it was also a great experience for us to understand what it takes to win. There were plenty of teachable moments.
“Everything had a better flow for us, our ball movement was better, our spacing was better, and I felt like we took 10 or 12 steps forward and maybe only a couple of steps back.
“I felt like we gained a lot on this trip.”
Adams poured in 46 points in tourney wins over Champaign Central High School (69-42), Mount Vernon High School (44-31) and Marist High School (58-56).
But you didn’t need both hands to count the number of touches he got on offense in the first half of the championship contest.
In fact, the 6-foot-5 senior standout only attempted two field goals in the first half and – predictably – the Wildkits trailed 29-23 at the intermission as a result.
“That’s exactly what we talked about at halftime,” Ellis said. “It’s all about court awareness and you have to have a balance. You can’t take the first shot you can get if there’s only a one-out-of-five chance you’re going to make it. Those are the shots you need to turn down. And our bigs [Adams and Josh Thomas] were difference makers for us in the first three games.”
Adams tallied 8 points in Evanston’s third quarter surge and Jonah Ross, a second team all-tourney selection, added a pair of 3-point baskets to push the Kits to a 40-36 advantage after three quarters.
But the Lions responded with a 7-0 run to open the final period, then added the finishing touch when Adams departed to the bench with the score knotted at 47-all with 4:03 to play after a pair of Thomas free throws.
Malachi Barrett’s rebound bucket pulled Evanston to within 2 (51-49) at the 2-minute mark, and Davis answered with a 3-pointer from the left corner that effectively sealed the win for the Missouri squad.
Jackson, who fired in 14 points in the first half, was kept under wraps by ETHS defenders Brandon Watson and Ross in the last two quarters, but his runner in the lane late also foiled any comeback hopes.
“We lost to the best team in St. Louis last year [Vashon]… and Ritter is definitely one of the best teams in St. Louis this year,” Ellis said. “They’re a good defensive team. When they seized the momentum back (in the fourth quarter), they scored in the open court off our bad shots and turnovers.
“Our goal going into the game was to play as much 5-on-5 basketball as possible against them. Any time it was broken [transition] basketball, they made us pay.”
Centralia is one of the rare tourneys where the semifinals and finals are played on the same day and Evanston advanced to the finals by earlier holding off Marist 58-56. The losers misfired on a 3-point shot at the final buzzer and Evanston prevailed behind Adams’ 20 points and nine rebounds, plus double figure efforts from Barrett (11 points) and Thomas (10).
Evanston opened the tourney with one of its most impressive offensive showings of 2022, burying Champaign Central 69-42 behind Chase (16 points) and Adams (13 points, nine rebounds) while connecting on 52% of their field goal tries. Evanston led 39-20 at the halftime break Wednesday.
On Thursday, the defense shared the spotlight by holding Mount Vernon to just 31 points as a team. Adams contributed a double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds, and Ross sank 4-of-5 attempts from 3-point range to account for his 12 points.
“Winning a holiday tournament is nice, but it really doesn’t mean anything beyond that,” Ellis explained. “Even though the last one got away from us, for me the main takeaway is learning and improving over those four games in totality, and we did that.”