THE OPENING TIP-OFF
The holidays have come and gone, winter break is winding down and the Eureka men's basketball team is ready to kick off a new year of high expectations.
St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference play continues on Saturday with a home meeting with MacMurray at 3 p.m. inside Christine Bonati Bollwinkle Arena.
Going into 2020, the Red Devils hold a 7-3 record on the season and are one of six teams sitting at the top of the conference standings with a 2-1 mark in league play.
After showing reasons to believe that EC can play with anybody in the conference in the first 10 games of the season, now it's time to prove it and separate itself from the rest of the pack.
Eureka stumbled in its last SLIAC game on December 14. Westminster came to town and drained 16 triples while shooting 56.5 percent from the floor and snapping EC's five-game winning streak with a 96-84 win over the Red Devils.
Since then, the Red Devils have held their own in a 70-52 loss at Division II Maryville and performed well in an 85-71 win at Dallas more than 800 miles away from home.
The SLIAC's leading scorer Dakota Bennington (24.4) came up big in both games, averaging 26.5 points per game while shooting 52 percent from the floor, 41.6 percent from 3 and 85.7 percent from the free-throw line.
In addition to points per game, Bennington also leads the league in total points (244) and field goals (91-of-168), is second in free throws (46-of-62) and steals (28) and is fifth in total rebounds (65) and blocks (11).
Junior guard Ian Milsteadt contributed 18 points against Dallas, while Juergens posted a double-double of 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Senior Kyler Stork is another player who has stepped up as late. The 6-foot-6 reserve forward shot 4-for-6 against Maryville and 4-for-5 against Dallas, finishing with eight points in each game. He also notched a career-high 10 at Principia on Dec. 7, giving him an average of 8.6 points per game on 68.7 percent shooting in his last three appearances.
The Red Devils remain the SLIAC's leaders in rebounds per game (44.2) and free throw percentage (72.1). They're also second in points per game (88.7), field goals made (337 of 735), free throws made (147 of 204), steals (8.7) and blocks (4.4).
MacMurray will head to Eureka with the inverse of the Red Devils' record. Instead of 7-3 and 2-1 in the conference, the Highlanders are 3-7 and 1-2.
The team dropped its SLIAC opener at home against Fontbonne, 94-76, took care of Spalding, 73-52, and got edged by Webster, 93-90.
The Highlanders are currently on a four-game losing streak that included a pair of close losses (the 3-point loss to Webster and a 1-point loss to Coe), a blowout against highly touted Augustana (105-63) and, most recently, falling short by 12 against American Rivers Conference heavyweight Loras.
They're led by 6-foot-7 sophomore Logan Dorethy. A third-team All-SLIAC selection as a freshman, Dorethy is averaging 17.7 points and a league-leading 8.8 boards per game while shooting 57.5 percent from the floor. He has tallied the third-most field goals in the league (73 of 127), and he dropped a season-high 34 points in the near upset against Webster.
Trevor Voss and Camron Jamison are also averaging double figures, with 13.9 and 13.3 points per game, respectively.
The Highlanders average 77.7 points per game and hold the second-highest field-goal percentage in the league at 46.8 percent.
Historically one of the most even of Eureka's rivalries, the Red Devils currently hold a 29-28 edge over MacMurray in the all-time series.
In 2019, Eureka took both meetings.
On Jan. 13, Eureka amassed a 48-point lead in the first half, setting a new highest halftime advantage in coach Chip Wilde's 12-year tenure at Eureka, en route to a 102-80 victory. Jordan Dehm racked up 21 points and 14 rebounds, while Bennington added 20 points on 8-of-15 shooting.
Then, on Feb. 13, Austin Juergens poured in a career-high 31 points and the Eureka men pulled away from MacMurray for a 98-80 win.
However, just as significantly to Eureka, it was MacMurray's 81-75 win over Westminster on the last day of the season that helped the Red Devils sneak into the SLIAC Tournament and pave the way for their first run to the NCAA Tournament in program history.