Mike Ellis has nothing against pickup basketball games.
But the Evanston coach draws the line when one of his teams approaches a Central Suburban League South division matchup like it doesn’t matter any more than a pickup outing.
Dissatisified with the effort of the starters, Ellis dug deeper into his bench than usual and had reserves on the floor for much of the second half Friday, Jan. 6, against Maine South, in what was never more than a two-possession game. The bench held its own and the Wildkits survived a failed 3-point shot attempt at the buzzer to score a 45-43 triumph at Beardsley Gymnasium.
Evanston left immediately after the unusual matinee game (3 p.m. start) to compete at the Wendy’s-Midwest One Bank Classic shootout event hosted by Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.
But don’t think for a minute that Ellis, because of a return to his coaching roots in Iowa, was more concerned about his team putting its best foot forward on Saturday and rested his regulars as a result.
The veteran coach never looks past any opponent, and that’s a message that his players tend to forget sometimes.
“I felt like we lacked a sense of urgency today, and it looked like an afternoon pickup game out there,” Ellis explained after his team improved to 12-4 overall, 2-2 in CSL South action. “Wins in the league are more valuable than any other games and that’s always the priority for us. Today was more about finding the right hearts out there, not the right combinations.
“We weren’t playing horrible basketball, but it got to the point where we were just trading baskets with them. We played well for stretches, then we’d let up, and you can’t do that in this league. I just felt like Maine South wanted it more than we did. They came out with more intensity.”
Evanston’s starting lineup in the fourth quarter consisted of Brandon Watson and Ephraim Chase, plus three reserves – Colin McDonald, Antoine Thomas and Addison Blough – who haven’t exactly played extended minutes in any games this season.
Even when the regulars returned with just over 3 minutes left, Maine South still had a couple of chances to take the lead. But the Hawks (6-9 overall, 0-4 league) couldn’t quite catch up, opting instead for a pair of 3-point field goal opportunities that Kaden Karstens missed badly in the final 90 seconds.
After a Hawks’ timeout with 18 seconds remaining, Karstens threw up an air ball with ETHS defender Hunter Duncan right in his chest. The rebound trickled out of bounds with less than a second to play, and the visitors couldn’t get another shot off in time.
Karstens led South with 13 points, but that included a woeful 1-of-13 effort from beyond the 3-point arc. As a team, the Hawks connected on just 4-of-25 long-range shots and actually attempted more treys (25) than twos (20).
In contrast, Evanston fired in 45% (14-of-31) from the field and the slim margin of victory came down to recognizing what is – and isn’t – a good shot. Chase netted 10 points to lead the hosts, followed by Prince Adams with 8 points and 6 minutes. Adams only played 22 minutes as Ellis turned to his bench to try to light a fire under the starters.
“To me, the bright spot was our shooting. I don’t remember us taking a single bad shot,” Ellis said. “The other guys [reserves] are all valuable components on this team and they deserve a chance to play. They’re all solid players and there’s not one guy on the bench we don’t believe in.
“We took good shots and we had good balance inside and outside. We’re still too careless with the basketball [16 turnovers]. If turnovers were how you kept a team’s record, we’d get beat a lot. Our record would be something like 4-10-2 instead of whatever it is. We still have a lot to learn in terms of playing consistent basketball.”
The home team didn’t take the lead at all until Adams netted a 3-point play on a drive down the middle with 1 minute, 50 seconds left in the first half for a 19-18 edge. It was 21-20 in Evanston’s favor at halftime after Watson scored on a steal.
Three-point buckets by Malachi Barrett, Jonah Ross and Chase delivered a 37-32 lead after three lackluster periods for the winners.