Red Devils open conference play with win

Members of the EHS boys’ hoops team react to a third-quarter dunk by teammate Wade Bowen, during the Red Devils’ 65-59 win over Green River Thursday. It was the second win in a row for head coach Rob Watsabaugh’s squad, and the first conference win for the team. (HERALD PHOTO/Don Cogger)

The last time the Evanston High School boys’ basketball team hosted Green River, the Red Devils came out on the winning end of a triple-OT thriller, downing their Southwest Quadrant rivals 67-66.

Last Thursday’s contest proved to be just as dramatic, with the home team overcoming a 9-point halftime deficit to win 65-59. It was the second win in a row for the 2-7 Red Devils, and their first in 4A Southwest Quadrant play.

“It was a very exciting game,” said EHS head coach Rob Watsabaugh. “It was back-and-forth in the second half — we had a little bit of a slow start. But we started seeing plays develop offensively, as well as being in the right place defensively to get a few steals and take over the game. Getting some stops and not turning the ball over really helped us chip our way back into that one.”

The game was close for most of the first half, though the Wolves (3-6, 1-1 in conference) created a little separation as the second quarter wound down. Evanston trailed 27-18 at the break; Stetson Weidrich led the team with six first-half points, followed by Jagger Mitchell and Braxton Lind, with five apiece.

“The vibe in the locker room was that this is conference play; it matters now,” Lind said about the team’s mood at the break. “We can’t be falling behind anymore, and the fact that it was Green River helped fuel that fire, because it’s a rivalry game, and we really hate to lose to those guys.”

Watsabaugh preached ball control and rebounding in the locker room, especially on Green River’s end of the floor.

“I told the guys at half that we were close to our limit for Green River getting offensive rebounds,” he said. “Our message was also taking care of the basketball — we have to get shot attempts instead of turnovers. Being down nine, there’s no one play that’s gonna change the momentum — it’s going to be multiple possessions in a row of us getting stops consistently, and having that lead to good offensive possessions.”

The Wolves extended their lead to double digits to start the third quarter, though momentum quickly shifted to the home team. Down 30-19, Mitchell drained a 3-pointer, then stole the ball on Green River’s next possession, taking it the length of the floor to make it 30-24. Lind followed with a layup to cap the 7-0 Evanston run, and the Red Devils trailed by just four, at 30-26.

The Wolves pushed their lead to 32-26, though Evanston’s Carson Wall answered with a bucket and a foul. Wall’s freebie was off the mark, but Lind grabbed the rebound and put it back for two, cutting the lead to 32-30.

A Green River 3-pointer made it a five-point game, though momentum was about to shift once again. After a steal on the Wolves’ end of the floor, Evanston’s Burke Thomas dished off a no-look pass to big man Wade Bowen underneath the basket, who promptly threw it down for his second dunk in as many games.

“My rebounds and blocks were getting us transition points, and my dunk brought energy to keep us going,” Bowen said.”We had Braxton score a lot in the second half, and some key three pointers to change the game.”

The play further energized an already fired up Red Devils squad, and back-to-back baskets by Lind and a layup by Thomas had Evanston within two at 40-38 as the third quarter ended.

“I thought in the second half that we started to look inside a little bit more — the three-ball wasn’t falling for the majority of our team, so we found a good balance inside,” Watsabaugh said. “Getting Wade [Bowen] and Braxton [Lind] involved inside really got things going.”

The Red Devils outscored Green River 27-19 in the final frame, highlighted by a pair of 3-pointers by Mitchell and seven points from Lind; when the dust settled, the Wolves were sent home with the 65-59 loss.

“I thought our energy was really good in the second half,” Watsabaugh explained. “I thought we played with some fire, and we were sharing the ball — it was a team effort to climb our way back into it. Our guards getting steals that led to transition points, and us rebounding — I thought Wade [Bowen] did an excellent job rebounding for us — and taking easy baskets when we can get them. I thought we played a well-balanced game in the second half.”

Lind had his best statistical game of the season, netting 22 points, to go along with five rebounds. Asked what was working during the game, the senior said staying out of foul trouble was key.

“For me, it was playing smart... but also being able to run the floor some more. The big man in the middle [Bowen] was cleaning up the glass like it was nothing, which gave me a chance to get out and run the floor for some easy layups.”

Watsabaugh agreed.

“Braxton stayed out of foul trouble in the first half, which is something we’ve battled all year,” he said. “He was able to play a complete game, which was great. We told our bigs, ‘Guys, if we get the ball in the paint, we have to attack and put pressure on the rim.’ I thought all of our bigs did a good job of taking that message and going to the rim strong.”

Mitchell finished with 16 points, and had the hot hand from behind the arc, hitting on four 3-pointers.

“Jagger’s very good at getting to an opening where the defense isn’t,” Watsabaugh said. “If he has some time, he’s very capable of knocking down multiple threes in a game.”

Thomas chipped in eight points, and dished off a team-high eight assists. Bowen grabbed 13 rebounds, to go along with five points.

“Burke plays with a very calm demeanor — he understands the game very well,” Watsabaugh said. “His three-ball wasn’t falling, so he put pressure on the rim, and had a lot of drop-offs to our bigs that they were able to finish. He made the right reads offensively, and I thought he played sound defense, as well.”

Watsabaugh had solid minutes from his bench, as Wall added seven points, followed by Wiedrich with six.

“I keep telling our guys, ‘When your number is called, be ready,’” Watsabaugh said. “Stetson came off the bench for us in the first half and gave us a quick six points and a few rebounds — he was in the right spot defensively, so that was great to see him in there.”

The Red Devils have a pair of conference games scheduled for this week, starting with a trip to Star Valley (3-6, 1-0 in conference) Thursday; they’ll be back home Saturday, hosting Jackson (1-7, 0-2 in conference).

“We’ll continue to work on our press-break offense,” Watsabaugh said. “Star Valley will press us a little bit, and defensively, they’ll run a zone, so we’ll have to get some reps in our zone offense. But our two goals won’t change: [Not] turning the ball over, and giving up offensive rebounds. That will be our main focus again [against Star Valley] — taking care of the basketball, and ending a possession on defense the right way with a rebound.”

Mitchell agreed with his coach’s assessment.

“Before we make our trip up to Star Valley, we need to work on playing a clean game all the way through,” he said. “That includes limiting turnovers, offensive rebounds and big runs. If we do that, we will keep this ball rolling.”

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