Anthony Roberts, despite his frustration, could only smile.
The positive of the night — that his Oak Park team had pushed No. 6 Evanston to the brink, holding a lead entering the game’s final two minutes before falling 79-69 — was little consolation. Roberts had scored a game-high 24 points, brought down a game-high eight rebounds, shot 11-of-14 from the floor, led a double-digit comeback in the fourth quarter, and had nothing to show in the standings for it.
“We should’ve won that game,” the senior guard said, the grin on his face not prompted by any joy. “I think we’re the top team in the state, if you ask me.”
The No. 23 Huskies (14-8) trailed by as many as 14 points in the third quarter Saturday and 61-50 entering the final frame, but erupted on a 16-4 run over six minutes to ignite the home crowd and put themselves in position for a statement victory.
But the Wildkits (23-4) finally woke up in the closing moments. Jaheim Holden gave them the lead back, they got several much-needed stops on the defensive end and then Blake Peters — previously quiet all night — drilled a ‘goodnight’ 3-pointer as part of 14-3 Evanston run to end the game.
“We got comfortable, and we can’t get comfortable playing a team like that,” Evanston coach Mike Ellis said. “You’ve got to play the full 32 minutes and we took possessions off, especially to start the fourth quarter. … (But) when we got down one in the fourth quarter, our guys didn’t panic, didn’t point fingers and stayed united.”
The pace was fast from the outset and never slowed down. Both teams shot over 50 percent from the floor and penetrated the opposing defense with ease.
Five Wildkits scored in double figures: Lance Jones had 20 points and seven rebounds, Holden scored 19 and Peters, Jaylin Gibson and Ryan Bost each added 10. For Oak Park, the vast majority of the offense ran through three guys: Roberts was the showstopper, but guard Chase Robinson and forward Charlie Hoehne were also both efficient en route to 17 and 14 points, respectively.
Evanston technically continued a streak of five consecutive wins by double-digit margins, but Saturday’s contest was by far the most competitive of the five, which gave the team an opportunity to work on late-game strategies as the postseason nears.
“Coach just brought us together and he said, ‘Stay focused, stay patient, get one stop at a time, and then the offense will work on itself,’” Jones said. “It’s always good to have (a close game) every once in a while, to know where we stand when we get in that situation.”
Roberts’ electric combination of athleticism, speed, vision and near-perfect finishing nearly made the Wildkits regret the game’s closeness a lot more, though. Oak Park coach Matt Maloney made adjustments in the second half to get the ball in Roberts’ hands seemingly every possession, and the St. Cloud State commit — who “does everything” for the Huskies, Mahoney said — nearly singlehandedly willed the comeback into fruition.
“I pushed the ball, set my teammates up, and they set me up. Getting to the rack, that’s what I practice,” Roberts said. “Individually, I’ve been playing really great.”
His satisfaction about his all-around terrific senior campaign is being seriously hampered by one thing, though.
“I’d be more pleased if we had a better record,” he admits.
— Ben Pope (@BenPope111) February 3, 2019