For five months, as his Wildkits rolled through the regular season, then the Regionals, then the Sectionals, Ryan Bost’s mind has been focused on a town 170 miles southwest of Evanston.
Tuesday night, Bost booked his trip back.
“Honestly, I don’t think it’s even in the back of my head — I think it’s right on the top,” the senior said. “I’m just thinking about getting back to Peoria. Literally every game, every practice, every minute of the day: It’s all about Peoria.”
No. 4 Evanston rallied from a double-digit halftime deficit, survived a potential buzzer-beater and then dominated overtime to beat No. 10 Stevenson 57-45 in front of about 6,000 fans at the Class 4A Sears Centre supersectional in Hoffman Estates. The win secures a state semi-final matchup against Rockford East this Friday in Peoria’s Carver Arena.
The Wildkits’ three senior leaders, playing their fourth and final varsity season, led the way. Lance Jones scored 18, Bost tallied 13 and Jaheim Holden added 11.
But things nearly ended far differently — nearly ended with a scrappy Patriots team, starting four juniors and only one senior, completing a surprising run to Peoria in what most expected to be a rebuilding year.
First, Stevenson’s Matt Ambrose (11 points) drilled back-to-back three-pointers to give his side a 42-38 lead with two minutes left in regulation.
Then Evanston coach Mike Ellis, his team needing a basket to tie the game with the clock ticking under 40 seconds, called for a play that would’ve taken the ball out of Jones’ hands, as the Southern Illinois-bound guard had struggled most of the night. Holden overruled him, and Jones made an athletic move in the lane to score.
“Originally we called a different play, but my teammate Jaheim, he had faith in me and he told coach, and coach had faith in him to run a play for me,” Jones said. “It got me going to the basket head-on. I just want to thank my coaches because they have faith in me even though I was missing a lot of layups throughout the game.”
Ambrose still had an open look from deep to win it at the buzzer in front of the Patriots’ massive student section. His shot hit the back of the rim and rolled out.
“I thought there was a possibility that that shot would go in from Matthew, but it just didn’t,” Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose said. “He thought he was fouled a little bit, he spilled down, but I don’t think the referees were going to call that foul at the end of the game. They’re going to swallow that whistle. But we can’t look at that as the problem.”
The problem was more along the lines of 31 turnovers by Stevenson, the most forced by Evanston this year.
The Patriots wanted to slow the game down; the Wildkits had the opposite goal. After a first half in which Ambrose’s crew dominated the tempo, taking a 26-16 edge into the break, Evanston erupted on a 12-0 run to open the third quarter, using their made baskets as opportunities to set up an intense full-court press.
“They’re not just going to give the ball up, they’ve got too many skilled guys on the floor — even their bigs are skilled,” Evanston coach Mike Ellis said. “For our guys to, defensively, put in the intelligence not just to gamble and wildly try to steal the ball, there was a method to it. That’s something we’ve talked about, being a team that doesn’t run around with their heads cut off.”
In overtime, Jones simply took over, backing down and finishing over Robert Holmes (nine points, 14 rebounds) to give his squad the lead, then converting an even-more-impressive layup-and-one on the next possession. Evanston eventually outscored Stevenson 15-3 in the extra four-minute period.
The Wildkits team that will head downstate this weekend, hoping to improve upon last year’s third-place finish, is one full of senior leadership. Jones, Bost and Holden have racked up 108 wins and counting over the past four seasons.
And so, when the fate of their high school careers lay in the balance Tuesday, even their coach handed over the keys.
“A player-coached team is always going to beat a coach-coached team,” Ellis said afterward. “It’s not ‘Coach said to do this,’ it’s ‘We said to do this, so we’ve got to make sure it works.’ Any time there’s some ownership involved in that, I think it helps them execute and make better choices.”