With the voting deadline approaching to seed Illinois High School Association sectional basketball tournaments, there’s nothing quite like a victory over the defending state champions to build your resume.
And since Evanston Township High School is assigned to the toughest Class 4A sectional tournament in Illinois, the Wildkits need all the help they can get if you believe that seeds determine postseason success.
The Kits helped themselves with a 66-64 overtime triumph over Glenbard West Saturday night at the E-Town Showdown at Northwestern University. Late game heroics by Malachi Barrett and Josh Thomas powered the Wildkits to their 20th win of the season in the third annual cage shootout at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Shrugging off an emotional loss to New Trier Friday night – not to mention a sluggish first half Saturday – Evanston staged a dramatic turnaround on defense in the second half, limiting Glenbard West to 28 points in the final 20 minutes and rallying from an 8-point deficit.
Stung a little by some criticism from his former sophomore coach, Stacey Moragne, Barrett rose to the occasion by scoring seven points in the overtime period, including a pair of free throws with 10 seconds remaining to provide an insurmountable 4-point ETHS lead. Glenbard West scored a meaningless layup just before the final buzzer.
Barrett was chosen Player of the Game after scoring a team-high 15 points and boosting ETHS to a 20-7 record on the season. Joining him in double figures were teammates Prince Adams (12 points, 10 rebounds, 4 blocked shots), Thomas (12 points) and Morgan Brown (10 points). Glenbard West, now 16-10, was topped by Benji Zander’s 22 points and Jack Oberhofer’s 18.
Like most teenagers, Barrett doesn’t like getting yelled at. And Moragne took him to task for his body language during a timeout huddle.
“He said I was rolling my eyes and had an [bad] attitude out there,” said the senior guard. “I was a little surprised when he said that. I thought I was just looking at something in the distance. But I hate getting yelled at, and with Prince in foul trouble, everyone had to step up tonight.
“I’ve got to be honest about it, we’re a second-half team. Sometimes the other teams just start better than we do. My teammates got my energy going and it was easy for me to build off of that. We know we need to build some momentum going into the state tournament.”
That momentum is shaping up especially if both Barrett and Thomas continue to assert themselves on offense.
“Everything we did in the second half was better,” said Evanston head coach Mike Ellis. “And when Coach Moragne challenged Malachi to play better, I was really happy with how he responded. For him to take that and turn it into the second half that he had? Well, obviously we don’t win without the game he played tonight.
“Tonight was just about our will to win after a performance we weren’t proud of in the first half. Josh Thomas switched onto their point guard [Zander] on defense in the final 3 minutes of the game and the overtime – that’s our center guarding a point guard – and he did such a great job defending him. That shows just how important Josh is to our team too.”
Evanston battled back behind a game-changing defensive performance from Adams. Limited to just a couple of minutes of playing time in the first half due to foul trouble, Adams had to watch from the bench while Oberhofer looked like a McDonald’s All-American candidate and stashed in seven of his eight field goal attempts.
When Adams returned, he blocked four shots in the third quarter alone. And Oberhofer? He wasn’t heard from again, netting just one field goal the rest of the way.
Adams fouled out with 16 seconds left in regulation, bumping the Hilltoppers’ Luuk Dusek at the top of the key on a 3-point attempt. The West guard swished his first two tries to tie the game at 56-56, but he clanked the third attempt and that gave the Kits one more try for a last-second win on consecutive nights.
This time they turned the ball over against West’s 1-3-1 zone defense, one of the few mistakes they made in the second half. Dusek’s air ball from 50 feet was well short at the buzzer.
In the OT, Zander twice drove to the basket to keep the Hilltoppers on top at 60-58. But Barrett knocked down a rare 3-point shot and added a drive for a score on the next possession to help Evanston take control.
Resplendent in the new black uniforms they save for special occasions this year, the Kits might have been posing for pictures on defense in the first half in those unis. They watched the Hilltoppers burn them for 36 points on 17-of-21 shooting from the field – that’s 80% – and couldn’t find a way to get any stops.
The physical burden was one issue. The mental issue was another, according to Ellis.
“We really only stopped them a couple of times,” said the ETHS coach. “We seemed to be in a trance on defense. When a team is finishing every possession so well, like Glenbard West did, it’s a steep challenge [mentally] to overcome that. You keep thinking those results will keep happening. That’s a very effective team on offense because they can all dribble, pass and shoot.
“I thought what got us back in the game, besides our defense, was our ability to get the ball to Prince and Josh in the paint. We didn’t want to live and die with the 3-point shot against their zone, and I thought each one of our players played with a lot of poise tonight.
“Twenty wins is only a number to look at for a seed meeting. Hopefully, this team will start getting some respect if people will look at our record and the good teams we’ve lost to. This is one more game that says who we are.”