Red Devils honor seniors with 51-40 win over Jackson

Kai Barker nets 12 points; 4A West Regionals this week

The Evanston High School boys’ basketball team said goodbye to the regular season (and their seniors) in style, handing visiting Jackson a 51-40 loss in Saturday’s regular-season finale.

“Our kids played really well,” said EHS head coach Rob Watsabaugh. “They played tough — it was a gritty defensive effort, and offensively, we held possession of the ball really well. Our kids went out there and earned it.”

With the win, the Red Devils improved to 6-15 on the season (3-3 in the 4A Southwest Quadrant), and gained some much-needed momentum heading into this weekend’s 3A West Regional Tournament in Star Valley. The team also honored its three seniors — Bryton Smith, Dylan Liechty and Caleb Welling — before the game.

“Those seniors have been great,” Watsabaugh said. “You look at Dylan and Caleb — they didn’t get as many minutes as some of the rest of our back court, but they competed every day. They made us better, they had the right attitude, their energy was great, they’re well-connected with our team, all three of them. I’m super-proud of them for playing a big role in what we’ve done this year, helping our program get back to where it needs to be, and doing things the right way, on and off the court. They’re helping shape what’s expected of an Evanston boys’ basketball player, and they did an incredible job of that this year.”

The Red Devils overcame their typically slow start, and at the end of the first quarter, the score was knotted at 11-11.

“I think the excitement of Senior Night played into that a little bit — wanting to look for smart attacks in transition was something we worked on all week,” Watsabaugh said. “I thought our guys did a really good job of that. We pushed the ball, but we didn’t push it recklessly, and we got some good looks. We got our insider game going, and our outside game fell into place.”

The second quarter went back and forth, with the home team clinging to a one-point lead at the break, 23-22.

“Tip of the hat to our seniors — those three guards starting the game played well and kept us from digging ourselves a hole early,” Watsabaugh said. “That was good for us. I gotta give those three credit for getting off to a great start, and they all took a turn defensively guarding Seb Brunner. Kai, Clayton and Cohen rotating inside on him, as well.”

The Red Devils came out firing to start the second half, and finally created some separation, outscoring the Broncs 13-6 and taking a 39-28 lead into the final frame. Jackson kept pace in the fourth but was unable to gain any ground, as Evanston held on for the 11-point win, 51-40.

The Red Devils’ defense did a phenomenal job shutting down Jackson’s supporting players, as Andrew Hanna and Seb Brunner scored the lion’s share of the Broncs’ points.

“We wanted to slow Andrew Hanna down — we wanted him to feel our presence all night,” Watsabaugh said. “I think that finally took its toll — he missed some shots that he normally makes, and I have to give our bigs some credit for wearing him down. Staying in front of Seb Brunner was also a big key. He made some tough shots, but we locked down the rest of the team. We played some pretty good defense. Holding them to 40 points is impressive. Our team was hungry to do whatever it took to get a win.”

Kai Barker paced the Red Devils with 12 points, to go along with eight rebounds. Bryton Smith followed with 11 points and seven boards, while Cohen Morrow finished with nine points, seven rebounds and three assists. Jordan Mendez had seven points, Clayton Cook finished with five, Drew Barker chipped in four and Jay Hill and Dylan Liechty rounded out the scoring with two p[oints and one point, respectively.

“I think it was a collective effort offensively,” Watsabaugh said. “I think I played 12 kids — nine with significant minutes — and of those nine, eight were in the scorebook. It was a well-balanced scoring attack.”

With the regular season now in the books, the Red Devils opened the 3A West Regional Tournament Thursday in Star Valley against Cody. The last time these two teams met, the Broncs cruised to a 76-43 win, though Evanston was responsible for ending Cody’s hopes for a state tournament berth last season in the regional tournament, upsetting the heavily-favored Broncs 45-44.

“We didn’t play a great game against Cody the first time — a lot of turnovers, and we gave up a lot of offensive rebounds,” Watsabaugh said. “We’ve made some adjustments offensively, being able to see what’s open against their 1-3-1 zone. Also mixing up our defense, so that they’re not getting into a rhythm. Our guys know that we can do it — we did it last year. Cody has gotten better, but then, so have we. Throw the ball up, and let’s go play.”