DUBUQUE, Iowa – He was born in Ohio, but Mike Ellis’ roots are firmly planted here in the bluffs next to the Mississippi River.

And his basketball team helped make it a happy homecoming for the Evanston coach Saturday night at the Wendy’s MidWestOne Bank Classic held at Loras College.

Evanston improved to 13-4 on the season with its win over Dubuque Homestead on Saturday at the Wendy’s MidWestOne Bank Classic in Iowa. Credit: Travis Muir

In front of a crowd that featured his parents, Charlie and Ruth Ellis, and other family friends, Coach Ellis led the Wildkits to an easy 68-39 victory over Dubuque Homestead at the shootout event that marked the first time the veteran coach has brought one of his teams back to play in the state where he was raised.

It is also believed to be the first time since the 1980s that an ETHS basketball team has played in an event where a shot clock was in place. More on that later.

Senior guard Jonah Ross fired in a game-high 21 points, on 7-of-12 shooting from 3-point range, and Ephraim Chase and Morgan Brown each contributed 10 points in the lopsided win.

Evanston improved to 13-4 on the year.

Ellis insisted that the homecoming wasn’t about him, but how his team performed on the overnight trip here. But the fact that the Kits put their best foot forward after a lackluster performance in their previous game against Maine South Jan. 6 was clearly satisfying for the ETHS coach.

And the victory was also a bit of payback for Ellis. He quickly flashed back to the fact that Hempstead was the school that knocked his team – Dubuque Senior High – out of the Iowa state basketball playoffs when Ellis was a senior back in 1988.

“You always remember that last loss in high school. Everybody does,” Ellis said. “But I never wanted this trip to be about me. It’s a great event in a great city and they’ve been trying to get us to come here for the last seven or eight years. This year it just worked out, and it worked out well for us tonight.

“I’ve lived my entire life here and tonight I’m just thankful that my parents were able to be here to see us play.”

Evanston coach Mike Ellis, seen at a Dec. 16 game, grew up in Iowa and the Wildkits’ Jan. 7 matchup against Dubuque Homestead was the first time he had brought one of his teams back to play in the state. Credit: Michael Kellams/thatphotodad.com

Ellis’ father moved the family west in 1974 following his own Hall of Fame coaching career in Ohio. Mike Ellis is a member of Dubuque Senior’s athletic Hall of Fame after starting at point guard and quarterback as a junior and senior at the school. He also lettered in track and played golf there.

The weekend trip featured a shoot-around practice at Dubuque Senior High on Saturday morning, although not in the same gym where Ellis played. “There’ve been a lot of upgrades at the school and it’s really beautiful there,” he said. “I wish it looked like that when I played.

“We need trips like this to spend time together as a team. This kind of travel helps them experience what it’s like to travel and play at the next level.”

Evanston’s Jonah Ross, seen at a Dec. 2 game, scored a game-high 21 points on Jan. 7. He shot 7-of-12 from 3-point range. Credit: Michael Kellams/thatphotodad.com

Ross drained four 3-point baskets in the first quarter – a couple from behind the arc for the collegiate players – as the Wildkits broke out to a 22-8 lead in the first quarter and never looked back.

Another 3-point shot by Ross just before the halftime buzzer boosted the winners to a 37-19 advantage, and that gave Ellis the opportunity to clear his bench in the second half. Seventeen players saw action for the Kits, including Brown, who scored a career-high 10 points, eight coming in the fourth quarter.

Hempstead was paced by Drew Lewis with 15 points and Reed Strohmeyer with 12.

Evanston shot 60% from the field in the first half and had no problems puncturing the Mustangs’ 1-2-2 zone defense. Point guard Hunter Duncan collected six assists and also scored 7 points and Josh Thomas snatched a game-high nine rebounds to back Ross’ offensive outburst.

“Our guys did a great job of finding the hot hand [Ross] tonight,” Ellis said. “They found him in places where he could make the defense pay. We’ve typically played better in the second half in most of our games, but we found spots where we could produce against their defense and we put a lot of pressure on them right from the start tonight.

“They felt like it wasn’t their best effort last night [against Maine South] and I think they were anxious to prove a point, that they’re better than that.”

If he needed any more enticement to return to his roots to play a game, the lure of an event with a 35-second shot clock in place was certainly enough to attract Ellis’ interest. He’s a staunch advocate of a change he believes would benefit the high school game and noted that Iowa has beaten Illinois to the punch when it comes to changing the rules to allow the use of a clock in regular season games.

Evanston will play in two more events, the “War On The Shore” tripleheader at ETHS and the E-Town Showdown at Northwestern University, that will feature a shot clock. The Illinois High School Association granted special permission to use a clock for those events.

There was one shot clock violation in the Evanston-Hempstead game Saturday – by
Hempstead early in the second quarter – and the ticking clock didn’t seem to impact the other five games at the shootout event.

“I wish we could catch up to the surrounding states instead of making excuses as to why we can’t have a clock,” said Ellis. “Football and water polo have play clocks. States like Iowa have been able to immediately put the clock in and in Illinois, we have to wait for the superintendents and principals to decide. I wish the IHSA would do something to help the kids out.

Evanston’s Hunter Duncan passes at a Dec. 2 game. On Jan. 7 he scored 7 points and collected 6 assists. Credit: Michael Kellams/thatphotodad.com

“I think it’s inevitable that we’ll have a clock. I just hope I’m not retired by then. The shot clock enhances the game and makes players more aware on each possession. Both teams played better tonight because of that awareness, and I know every one of our players would enjoy playing basketball the way they see it played on television [college and pro].”

Duncan said the shot clock adds only a little more pressure for a lead guard like him. The Wildkits spent the week leading up to the game practicing end-of-clock situations that could occur.

“I really like playing with a shot clock,” Duncan said. “In practice this week we did a lot of 5-on-5 drills with a 12-second shot clock where we had to go right to a play.

“When the clock is winding down like that, it actually gives me more confidence to take a shot if I have to. And when you can get a stop on defense, it definitely feels more rewarding to get the ball back like that. And you know the clock will be there for the next level [college basketball], and a lot of us want to play at that next level.”

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