By Julia Cardi
Trying not to cry, Nojel Eastern contorted his face after he missed his second-to-last free throw. With the top-seeded Evanston Wildkits trailing the fourth-seeded Notre Dame Dons by nine points late in the final quarter, the junior point guard knew his team wouldn’t go to the state championship. The Wildkits fell in the sectional semifinal Tuesday, ending their season with a 68-56 upset loss.
Evanston was hoping to duplicate its first matchup against Notre Dame: 71-64 victory. Instead, they finished 22-6, while the Dons (24-6) will play in the sectional final Friday.
“All four of our seniors are such high-character and high-value teammates,” a somber Coach Mike Ellis said after the game. “There are a lot of underclassmen who are disappointed that they didn’t get it done for the seniors.”
Senior Dylan Mulvihill left the locker room with puffy, reddened eyes. Junior Malik Jenkins fixed his downcast eyes on a spot past the reporters, and despair weighed on his normally confident voice. “We feel like we let the seniors down,” Jenkins said. “It’s on every underclassman that played tonight.”
Jenkins finished with 11 points for the Wildkits, and Eastern scored a game-high 27. But no other Evanston player added more than five.
Depth on the bench, normally a strength for the Wildkits, crumbled against Notre Dame’s powerful guards. Lucas Simon, Matt Stritzel and Jeameril Wilson led scoring for the Dons. Simon and Stritzel each contributed 14 points, and Wilson added 13.
“We thought that would be our advantage — to wear their guards down, knowing that we’re a deeper team,” Ellis said. “But there’s a difference between wearing down and finishing plays.”
Eastern missed a pair of key free throws in the fourth quarter with Evanston trailing 55-53.
“I think it would have been a lot different had I tied it,” Eastern said softly. “I got the steal, but [the ball] went out of bounds. It was tough.”
But Ellis pointed to the Wildkits’ play in the first half as the team’s downfall. In the second quarter, Evanston shot 28 percent compared to Notre Dame’s 63 percent.
“We didn’t come out in the first half with the intensity we needed to play,” Ellis said. “We weren’t able to focus possession by possession. We didn’t…fulfill those opportunities to score when the game got tight.”
Ellis said he hopes the loss will motivate them for next season. “I would’ve liked to have brought that up tonight, but tonight’s not the time to talk about that. I think that’d be disrespectful to the four seniors.”
Jenkins doesn’t want to go through the same heartbreak in 2017. “Seeing the seniors’ faces in there, I don’t want to feel like that as a senior next year.”