By Blake Baxter
WEBSTER GROVES , Mo. — There wasn't a magic key that unlocked everything during Eureka's improbable run to the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament this season.
It was more of a slow build, with each passing day and experience stacking up on top of each other until the Red Devils knew what they were made of – and what they were capable of achieving.
"It's always a goal to play your best basketball in February," coach Chip Wilde said. "But sometimes, you play your best basketball in February and it's too late.
"What's great about this group is that they came together at the right time, the pieces fell in place, and we are grateful for the opportunity to play in the postseason tournament."
On Friday, Eureka will take on Greenville for the third time this season. But this time, advancement is on the line. The third-seeded Red Devils (11-14, 10-8) will tip off against the second-seeded Panthers (17-8, 14-4) in a SLIAC tourney semifinal game inside Grant Gymnasium at 6 p.m.
The winner will face whichever team survives the 8 p.m. semifinal between top-seeded Webster (19-6, 15-3) and fourth-seeded Blackburn (13-12, 10-8) Saturday at 7 p.m.
For EC, making it here is the culmination of a season long effort to reach its potential and step up when it matters most.
Picked to finish fifth in the league's preseason poll and counted out by many after a 2-10 start to the season, the Red Devils managed to stay alive, rise to third in the SLIAC and clinch their second straight tournament berth.
It's the fifth SLIAC tourney appearance in Wilde's 12-year tenure at Eureka, and the program's sixth overall.
"We've been in contention a lot of years," Wilde said. "We've lost some tiebreakers. We tied for third and didn't make it, so we're not taking it for granted."
Wilde's squad is entering the tourney coming off a hot streak rivaled only by conference champion Webster. EC closed the SLIAC season with four emphatic wins it needed to stay in contention and five in six tries.
Along the way, the Eureka men knocked off Webster, Fontbonne, Greenville, MacMurray and Iowa Wesleyan. Three of the five previously beat them earlier in the season.
During that final four-game stretch, the team shot 58.7 percent from the floor, 43.4 percent from distance and 75.4 percent from the free-throw line.
It held opponents to an average of 76.3 points in its last three games and outrebounded them every game this month.
Beyond the stats, though, there's been one obvious difference in the Red Devils' play this month: ball control. They've taken better care of the ball, moving it with ease as a unit and finding the open man.
Junior and leading rebounder Jordan Dehm said he first noticed it against Fontbonne.
"Our team this year has had several instances where our ball movement has been very poor," he said. "Against Fontbonne, you could definitely tell that we were moving the ball better and, obviously, against Greenville; that was probably our best team game."
As the Red Devils strung together wins, they saw a variety of players turn in career-best performances.
Leading scorer and three-time SLIAC Player of the Week honoree Dakota Bennington dropped 40 points in a 116-91 triumph over Fontbonne on alumni recognition day. Then, when Greenville brought its frenetic system to town two days later, the junior racked up an EC record-setting 51 in an unforgettable 161-153 victory.
Senior Alex Wiegand went 16-for-16 from the field en route to a career-high 36 points against Greenville. Classmate Hank Thomas registered an EC SLIAC record 14 assists to go with 28 points, and Dehm delivered an under-the-radar double-double of 18 points and 12 boards.
Junior Austin Juergens notched a career-high 31 points on 11-of-14 shooting in a 98-80 win over MacMurray, and Thomas went off for 37 points while drilling nine 3s and recording six assists in EC's 110-77 senior-day rout over Iowa Wesleyan.
"It's because they're sharing the ball," Wilde said, "and that makes more people more of a threat."
They've also seen big contributions from their bench.
Quarterback Drew Barth joined the team this winter after helping guide the football team to a 9-2 season and an NCAA Division III playoff berth. A big guard in high school, the junior has worked his way into a key role as a point forward that can inbound against the press and move the ball well in the open court.
Junior Koby White has been a spark plug who can provide energy and hit timely shots. Senior Donald Hardaway Jr. has continued to be a reliable sixth man in the backcourt, and junior Kyler Stork, and freshmen Jalen Hosea and Drew Yonker have all logged crucial minutes as well.
In the middle of the run, however, it nearly all fell apart. Just a few days after taking down highly touted Webster, the Red Devils succumbed to Principia in an 89-78 road loss that left no room for error the rest of the way – and required everything to break just right to get back in the hunt.
The team was frustrated and the bus ride home was quieter than normal, but Dehm says there wasn't time to dwell on it.
"People knew how big that loss was and what it would mean for us and what we would have to do get in the tournament," he said. "We really just moved on as quick as we could."
From Wilde's perspective, the team has grown from its mistakes and learned perseverance. It knows what it needs to do to win, particularly against Greenville.
With the Panthers, the Red Devils know what they're up against: relentless pressing, deadly shooting, high scoring and a deep bench.
Dr. George Barber's squad is the highest scoring team in the country (134.7 points) and are second in the nation in made 3-pointers per game (19.3). Earlier this season, the Panthers notched 200 points against Fontbonne – the second-most points scored in a game in Division III history.
And they lead the nation in forced turnovers (33.56) and rebounds (50) per game. In short, Greenville does everything a team that runs the Grinnell system needs to do to be successful.
Against Eureka, three Panthers scored over 20 points – Eric Williams (25), Johari Dix (21) and Marvin Bateman (21) – and seven reached double figures as they racked up 153 points.
But EC withstood the pressure and kept up the pace, only conceding 24 turnovers while shooting 75 percent from the floor and limiting the Panthers to 20 offensive rebounds en route to a victory over the three-time defending conference champs.
Can the Red Devils duplicate that wild night from 11 days ago?
"I don't know if we'll be able to do exactly what we did last time," Dehm said. "But we've got some momentum coming into the tournament and we just beat them, so we've got confidence that we can do it again."