Making a case to become Class 4A’s comeback story of the season, the Evanston High School boys’ basketball team continued to impress over the weekend, running their win streak to five games with a 46-34 win at Rock Springs.
With adverse road conditions preventing the team from traveling to Casper Friday for a contest against Kelly Walsh, the Red Devils (5-11, 3-0 in 4A Southwest) took their frustration out on the Tigers (5-11, 2-1 in 4A Northwest) the following day, in what was easily their best defensive performance of the season. Over the course of the team’s win streak, Evanston has been holding opponents to about 46 points per game, down from about 65 points earlier in the season.
“Some of our early struggles, the guys have just done a great job of addressing them, especially on defense,” said EHS head coach Lex Cornia. “We told the guys you just don’t win giving up as many points as we had been to start the season. To see a group of guys address those things — which are hard to address — it’s a good sign.”
Evanston went on an 18-4 run to start the game and never looked back, taking a 24-18 lead into the break behind a stingy defense.
“Rock Springs scored in the 60s against Riverton, and in the 50s against Green River,” Cornia said. “I think our guys as a group have just decided to do things differently on the defensive end of the floor.”
The Red Devils spread the ball around well in the first half, led by Mason Ellingford’s nine points; Dawson Crofts and Casey Periman followed with five points and four points, respectively. David Baxter and Braxton Lind each hit a shot from behind the arc to get on the stat sheet.
“I saw guys turning down OK shots to try and get a better one,” Cornia said of his team’s effort in the first half. “They knew when to prioritize burning down the clock, rather than forcing shots that weren’t there. When a team plays with that type of discipline, it’s hard for an opponent to come back on them, and that’s what Rock Springs ran into.”
Evanston continued to play sound defense to start the second half, and at the end of the three led 33-26. The Tigers seemed to get something going in the fourth, pulling within five with just over three minutes to play in the game. The Red Devils tightened the screws, however, ending the game on a 6-0 run, all at the free throw line, to win 46-35.
Ellingford notched a double-double in the winning effort, with 19 points to go along with 11 rebounds. Crofts also finished in double figures with 11 points, followed by six points from Baxter.
“Mason [Ellingford] led us in points, and Dawson [Crofts] had another great effort,” Cornia said of the Red Devils’ two top scorers. “His [Crofts] back got kinda tweaked last week in practice, so he definitely wasn’t at 100 percent. But I thought his effort was still gutsy.”
Lind and Periman rounded out the scoring with five points apiece.
Cornia welcomed the return of junior Braxton Lind, who returned to the court for the first time since the Flaming Gorge Classic in December. But he reserved his highest praise for a player whose effort wasn’t reflected in points on the scoreboard.
“Getting Braxton back was huge,” he said. “But I would say Burke Thomas — he didn’t have a point, but I think he really took away their shooters. We were really nervous about some size matchups, but it didn’t seem to matter. He could be on the floor and take away drives and he could still get out on shooters.
“I thought that his performance was really strong, and exactly what we need in a 4A point guard.”
As for capitalizing on his team’s fast start, Cornia said the Red Devils did a great job of shutting down runs by Rock Springs and maintaining their lead.
“That’s kind of been the story of Rock Springs — they’ve beaten Thunder Basin, they’ve beaten Laramie and they beat [defending 4A state champion] Kelly Walsh,” he explained. “We told our guys, ‘Hey, they [Rock Springs] are going to make some shots. Your next possession on the other end has to be sound.’ I thought we did a great job of stopping their runs.”
Solid defensive play was key, though Cornia said it was a combination of things that allowed the Red Devils to jump out early and sustain the lead to the end.
“We knew the game was going to be decided by defense, and that we didn’t have to scorch a team for 70 points offensively to win a game,” he said.
“We should just be able to buckle down, do what we do, get the shots we want and then take care of things on the other end to win the game.”
It will be a busy week for the Red Devils, with a makeup game in Casper Monday against Kelly Walsh and a pair of games at home this weekend. Evanston welcomes Cody (6-8, 2-1 in 4A Northwest) to town Friday and Riverton (4-12, 0-3 in 4A Northwest) Saturday.
“We’ve had to deal with adversity the whole season, and now we’ll see how we deal with some success,” Cornia said of his team’s recent run. “It’s a different set of obstacles and challenges that a team has to cope with when they’re winning. And with a short week like this and having two teams that are similar to Rock Springs that can get you any given night in Cody and Riverton, this week will be a test.”
That said, the Red Devils are now in a position where they can no longer be overlooked.
“I think our guys are playing with a sense of confidence that we haven’t had all season,” Cornia said.
“They’re starting to believe that we’re not just a team that can get a win or two here or there and be OK with it. They can be a good, consistent team that is a factor in March.”