With a pair of impressive 4A Southwest Quadrant wins over the weekend, the Evanston High School boys’ basketball team’s win streak now sits at four games, with a 3-0 record in conference play.
Not a bad string of games for a team that started the season 0-11.
“With the messages we’ve been preaching and the work we’ve been demanding in practice, we’re starting to see things come together,” said EHS head coach Lex Cornia. “We were fortunate on Thursday — Star Valley played well enough to win that game — but we put ourselves in a position to win the game. And that’s kind of been the message of our season. Keep working, and you’ve got a chance.”
The Red Devils (4-11, 3-0 in conference) hosted Star Valley Thursday in just their second home game of the season, with Dawson Croft’s 3-pointer at the buzzer proving to be the difference in a 42-41 thriller.
“Coach Cornia drew it up perfectly, and Mason got it to me and I just put it up,” Crofts said of his game-winning shot.
Evanston followed that Saturday with a 59-39 rout on the road at Jackson for the clean sweep of quadrant opponents in the first meeting with each team.
“The guys have had a chip on their shoulder that’s been really evident in these last three conference games we’ve played,” Cornia said. “They’re playing for each other and rallying around each other. They’re playing angry, and that’s good to see.”
Red Devils 42,
Star Valley 41
Thursday’s contest against Star Valley (6-7, 2-1 in conference) was an instant classic, with the Red Devils overcoming a 10-point halftime deficit to hand the Braves a 42-41 loss.
Evanston senior Dawson Crofts was the man responsible for the game’s last-second heroics, calmly draining a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Red Devils the win.
“Dawson just put us on his shoulders that game,” Cornia said of his senior, who finished with a game-high 24 points. “And you could tell the minute he went into that shot that it was going down. And the least surprised person in the gym was Dawson Crofts. He’s been preparing for that shot for a long time.”
Down by two with just two ticks left on the clock, Cornia drew up a beauty that began with an inbound baseball pass from David Baxter to Mason Ellingford at mid-court. Ellingford zipped the ball down to a waiting Crofts, who let fly with the game winner and was instantly mobbed by his teammates.
“We needed to celebrate after that,” Cornia said. “Obviously, it’s not a state championship, and we try to reserve our celebrating for something like that. But I felt like that game got a lot of things out of our system that had been pent up, so it was just validation to these guys that they are a good team. They are a force to be reckoned with.”
The game was a low-scoring affair from the start, with Star Valley holding a 12-10 lead after one. The Red Devils managed just five points in the second quarter, while the Braves increased their lead to 10 at the break 25-15. Crofts paced Evanston in the first half with five points, followed by Ellingford with four and Casey Periman and Wade Bowen with two apiece.
On pace to hand Star Valley and easy, double-digit win, Evanston instead challenged themselves at halftime to give the Braves a game.
“A lot of it was the guys,” Cornia said. “It really was just them saying ‘Hey, we’re tired of doing this.’ We were on pace to lose that game by 18 or 20 and we needed more passion, more energy. And I felt like that’s what they came out with that second half. They weren’t gonna just lie down in the second half.”
The Red Devils came alive to start the third quarter, with Crofts hitting Evanston’s first seven points in the second half to cut Star Valley’s lead to six.
“We talked at half about how we came out a little sluggish, but we just needed to play with heart,” Crofts said. “We knew it was our game to win and we came out and played like it.”
By the start of the fourth, the Braves’ lead was down to four at 28-24.
“The beginning of that second half, we dove on a couple of loose balls, we got some rebounds, we changed what we were doing on offense,” Cornia said. “We said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna make this a dogfight.’ Without that change at halftime, the chance for that last play [Crofts’ 3-pointer] doesn’t happen.”
The Red Devils tied the game at 37-37 with just under two minutes to play. The Braves briefly re-took the lead at 39-37, when Ellingford hit a pair of free throws to bring the game back to even.
Star Valley’s Dean Shaw hit a short jumper with just two seconds left to make it 41-39, and the Braves seemed to have the game in hand. But the Baxter to Ellingford to Crofts connection was executed perfectly, putting Crofts in a position to hit the game winner.
“The team effort required to get Dawson into position to take that shot was something they’re proud of, and we as coaches are too,” Cornia said.
Crofts set the tone for Evanston with a season-high 24 points, including an impressive 4-for-6 performance from behind the arc. Ellingford followed with 12 points, to go along with six rebounds and three assists; Periman, Baxter and Bowen finished with two apiece.
Though he didn’t score a point in the game, Burke Thomas dished off six assists and grabbed three rebounds and finished with two steals. Crofts led the team in rebounds with seven.
Cornia called the win a team effort, with each player accepting their role and doing what needed to be done.
“You look at Casey Periman and David Baxter in particular, they both knew their roles in this game wouldn’t be reflected in points on the stat sheet,” he said. “We put David on [Star Valley offensive standout] David Horsley, and he told us during a timeout ‘Hey, I’m not worrying about scoring right now — my job is him [Horsley].’ For a kid to be willing to take on a tough job like that is huge. David held Horsley to six points in the second half. The effort required to do that is phenomenal.”
Red Devils 59,
Still basking in the glow of Thursday’s win against Star Valley, the Red Devils carried that momentum on the road at Jackson (0-13, 0-3 in conference), routing the Broncs 59-39 for the team’s third straight 3A Southwest Quadrant win.
“That was another team win, a lot of guys contributed,” Cornia said. “Jackson is a dangerous team, especially on their home floor. But our guys were able to establish themselves early.”
After trading shot-for-shot with Jackson for much of the first quarter, Evanston went on a seven-point run to close out the opening frame with a 17-9 lead. The Red Devils increased their lead to 13 by the break 34-21, closing out the first half with a Chase Brady to David Baxter to Jagger Mitchell to Mason Ellingford inbounds play in the final seconds that rivaled the game-winner against Star Valley. Ellingford led the team in the first half with 13 points, followed by Dawson Crofts, who found himself in a little foul trouble but still netted seven.
The Red Devils continued to roll in the second half, pushing their lead to 20 and cruising to the 59-39 win.
“We really took care of the basics of basketball during this game,” Cornia said. “Don’t turn it over, get the shot that we want, get back on defense, make their shots tough. I think that was the first game this season where we felt comfortable in all aspects.”
Ellingford had a monster game in the stat book, recording a double-double with 24 points and 15 boards; the senior also blocked four shots. Crofts finished with 11 points to go along with five rebounds and three assists, while Latham Chandler, Thomas and Baxter chipped in four points apiece. Thomas led the team with four assists, followed by Mitchell with three.
Evanston is on the road this week, with non-conference games at defending 4A state champion Kelly Walsh (8-5, 2-1 in 4A Northwest) Friday and Rock Springs (5-9, 2-1 in 4A Northwest Saturday. The Rock Springs game will be played at Rushmore Gymnasium on the campus of Western Wyoming Community College.
Cornia said both teams are playing well and will be a tough test.
“Rock Springs is playing inspired basketball right now, and Kelly Walsh won state last year,” he said. “Kelly Walsh has been the most consistent program in the state the last five years.
“They graduated a lot from their state title team last year, but they’ve beaten some very good teams this year. But I think we match up pretty well.”