LINCOLN, Neb. – One game into the Division III NCAA tournament, Nebraska Wesleyan's repeat national championship hopes are alive and well.
In front of a rowdy, sell-out crowd at NWU's Snyder Arena, the top-ranked Prairie Wolves (27-1) ended the Eureka College men's historic tourney run with an emphatic 101-75 win over the Red Devils Friday night.
After winning seven of their last nine games and capturing their first SLIAC tourney title to get to this point, the Red Devils (13-14) finally met their match in their Division III NCAA Tournament debut.
They finished a season that started at 2-10 with its first conference championship in hand and a final showcase on the national stage.
EC coach Chip Wilde said that earlier that day it finally dawned on him what stood out about this improbable, history-making team.
"There was nothing special about this group," Wilde said, "which made them very special. We had our flaws, we had our ups and we had our downs, and they just kept coming.
"They hung in with each other. They believed in each other. They took the good with the bad. We were a flawed team that wouldn't go away, because they loved each other. They cared about each other. I'm not trying to get too deep, but that's really how it was."
On Friday, the visiting underdogs stayed with the highly touted Prairie Wolves for the first couple of minutes of the contest, but the home team took control with an 11-0 run. An EC timeout to regroup didn't have the desired effect, and by the time it was over, it had turned into a 31-4 run.
NWU used its length on both ends of the court to cause problems for the Red Devils. Whether it was getting hands on passes with its 3-2 zone defense or finding easy buckets off the drive, the Prairie Wolves made everything a challenge for EC.
They shot 59.5 percent from the field in the first half, while EC struggled to create good looks in the half court and frequently settled for shots from the perimeter.
It shot 33.3 percent and went into the break trailing 55-24. Junior Dakota Bennington (Peoria, Ill./Peoria Christian/Olivet Nazarene) tallied a team-high 15 points in the half and finished with a game-high 28 on 12-of-24 shooting.
Senior Hank Thomas (Peoria, Ill./Richwoods) posted 17 points and five assists in the final game of his celebrated collegiate career, scoring all 17 in the second half. After four years as a Red Devil, he goes out in the top 10 in program history in nine different statistical categories.
Fellow senior Alex Wiegand (Washington, Ill./Washington), the Red Devils second-leading all-time shot blocker with 109 blocks, had a team-high 10 rebounds to go with five points, four assists, two steals and two blocks. Junior Jordan Dehm (Metamora, Ill./Metamora) added 12 points.
In the second half, the Red Devils cut into their steep deficit on a few occasions, but they could never hold off NWU's slew of shooters and slashers for long.
Still, the Red Devils managed to keep it respectable by outscoring the Prairie Wolves 51-46 on 48 percent shooting after halftime.
"Credit to Dakota Bennington," NWU coach Dale Wellman said, "and credit to their second half."
Nate Schimonitz led NWU with 24 points. Cooper Cook followed with 23, while Ryan Garver added 14 and Jack Hiller had 12. NWU finished the game at 54.9 percent shooting.
After the game, Bennington said the team's performance wasn't what the Red Devils were looking for, but the experience, and the run, was beyond anything he imagined when first came to Eureka.
"It was super special," Bennington said. "The guys on this team, it goes a lot deeper than basketball.
"To have this final trip and to see the seniors go out this way, and just the joy I saw when we won the conference, it made it all worth it."