For Evanston’s Nojel Eastern, it wasn’t about how he started Friday night’s 4A regional final at home versus Maine South. It was how he finished it.
Eastern was clutch down the stretch for the host Wildkits, putting behind him an awful beginning of the game to lead his team to a 58-53 victory and a spot in the sectional semifinals next Wednesday.
“It was a heck of a game,” Eastern said. “We played as a team, and my teammates did a great job.”
The night couldn’t have started much worse for the heralded guard. There was the early errant shot that missed everything and the resulting chants of “AIR BALL” from the Maine South cheering section. There were two quick first-quarter fouls that put Eastern on the bench for all but just four minutes, 48 seconds of the first half. And then the Wildkits point guard picked up a third foul 35 seconds into the third quarter, sending him to the bench again.
Eastern didn’t record his first points until the four minute mark in the third quarter, but he made up for it down the stretch. He finished with a team-high 18 points, with 14 coming in the fourth quarter. In the final three minutes of the game, he scored eight points in a 10-4 Evanston run that helped the Wildkits pull away.
“We don’t get down on ourselves when (Eastern) is out,” junior forward Dylan Mulvihill said. “Everyone has got to step up a little bit. And when he came back in the second half, we were in a good position, and he led us to victory.”
Even without their leading scorer, Evanston (20-8) held a six-point lead at halftime. That was in large part to the team’s domination on the glass. The Wildkits finished with a 26-12 edge in rebounding, which led to several second chance points. Mulvihill led the way with seven rebounds, scoring five points.
Maine South (26-4) wouldn’t go away quietly, however, and rallied back in the third quarter. Center George Sargeant was a force down low, leading all scorers with 23 points. The Hawks scored the first nine points of the third quarter to re-gain the lead, and the teams battled back and forth the entire rest of the way. There were 14 lead changes and five ties throughout the game.
But the Hawks had no answer for a rested and fresh Eastern at the end. The sophomore had another gear, taking a rebound and going coast-to-coast for a layup, driving past four exhausted defenders on the way to the hoop. He followed that up with a runner and a bank shot, sealing the Evanston win.
“When I was on the bench, I just kept my focus and continued to just stay in the game,” Eastern said. “Then I just tried to build on that intensity and give it my all.”