During his tenure as head basketball coach, Mike Ellis has traveled with Evanston’s basketball teams to South Carolina, Ohio, Iowa and Kentucky for out-of-state games.
But those trips were easy compared with Tuesday night.
The Wildkits had to journey to Oak Park-River Forest by way of Des Plaines, but their late arrival did not have a lasting impact on the outcome. Brandon Watson sank 8-of-10 free throw attempts in the fourth quarter and the Kits scored a 67-65 nonconference win at the end of a long night.
A bus snafu forced the ETHS boys to share the transportation with the ETHS girls team that was scheduled to play at Maine West. Apparently, one of the buses designated to take either the boys sophomore team or the varsity boys to Oak Park left without any passengers and Ellis had to scramble to create a Plan B.
The Wildkits spent more than two hours on that bus. They arrived after the sophomore game had been over approximately 10 minutes, yet ironically, got off to one of their best starts since Christmas.
“I want to publicly acknowledge [girls head coach] Brittanny Johnson for stepping up and suggesting that we share the ride tonight,” said Ellis after his squad improved to 21-7 on the season.
“Tonight was the first time in awhile that we got off to a good start, though, and we needed it. Otherwise we might have doubted ourselves. Instead, that strong start allowed us to fight off some of Oak Park’s runs.
“I thought our guys did a good job deciding they weren’t going to let a bus ride – or poor defensive plays – stop us tonight.”
Jonah Ross scored 17 of his total 20 points in the second half for the Wildkits, and Prince Adams was outstanding in the paint with 16 points, 11 rebounds and a couple of blocked shots. But it was Watson, a junior guard, who supplied the finishing touch for the winners after they trailed 48-42 entering the fourth quarter.
Never underestimate the value of a point guard who can make free throws. Watson was Evanston’s go-to guy after the visitors claimed the lead for good on a power move for a score by Adams and an old-fashioned 3-point play by Ross with 3 minutes, 40 seconds left in the contest.
Watson sank eight free throws in 10 tries down the stretch and senior Addison Blough also nailed a couple of clutch charity tosses. Watson converted three straight attempts in the last 8 seconds to clinch the win, as the Huskies (9-14 overall) tossed in a 3-point shot at the buzzer for the final margin.
The 5-foot-9 junior is developing into the classic think-pass-first distributor every successful team needs. He has shared backcourt duties with senior Hunter Duncan, and at times the two playmakers have played together. But when Duncan fouled out with just under 5 minutes remaining in the game Tuesday, it was up to Watson to take the Kits the rest of the way.
“Brandon is one of our better shooters, but as a point guard he tries to create offense for us, not for himself,” Ellis pointed out. “Facilitating what the others do on offense is the first option for him. We needed to get him to the free throw line once Hunter went out.”
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to be ready for big moments at all times,” Watson said. “I have to be good with the ball at all times, try to get the ball to Prince and Josh [Thomas] in the paint and try to get Jonah open looks, too. If I don’t play a good game, I feel like we’ll lose.
“Every morning I come in and shoot 200 free throws. It’s the easiest shot there is and I really shoot free throws more than anything else. It’s important to know you can make them and finish off a game.”
Evanston broke on top 17-14 after the first quarter, but couldn’t solve Oak Park’s “soft” 2-3 zone over the next two quarters and couldn’t contain the Huskies offense led by Justin Bowen (15 points) and Oscar Johnson (12) either. The hosts also had two others reach double figures as Jaziah Harper tossed in 11 off the bench and Mehki Austin contributed 10.
The Wildkits held OPRF without a field goal in the fourth quarter until the final minute of the game and that was on a questionable goal-tending call that kept the Huskies within striking distance. Oak Park turned the ball over six times in the period.
“I’m really proud of the way our defense stepped up on the road, and considering the circumstances,” Ellis added. “And the way Jonah [5-of-10 from 3-point range] got hot was really huge too.”
Evanston concludes Central Suburban League South division play at home on Thursday against Niles West.