EUREKA — The Eureka men's basketball team is right back in the hunt in the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference after a 98-83 victory over Fontbonne.
Following a neck-and-neck first half, the Red Devils outscored the Griffins 54-38 in the second to seal a much-needed win at Christine Bonati Bollwinkle Arena and Convocation Center.
Dakota Bennnington (Peoria, Ill./Peoria Christian) led the way with a 33-point performance on 11-of-19 shooting. He made a trio of triples, grabbed six rebounds, distributed four assists and recorded four blocks for the first time in his career.
Ian Milsteadt (East Peoria, Ill./East Peoria) came off the bench and contributed 15 points while going 4-of-7 from the field, 2-of-3 from distance and 5-of-5 from the line and adding three assists and a block in 18 minutes.
Jordan Dehm (Metamora, Ill./Metamora) posted 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting, along with six rebounds.
The win moved the Red Devils to 9-6 in the SLIAC and 14-8 overall. They're now tied with Fontbonne for fourth (with EC holding the tie-breaker). Webster (12-2), Greenville (11-4) and Blackburn (10-5) make up the top three.
Heading into the last three games, EC has won four of its last five.
"I think it was just us playing together and sharing the ball a lot," Bennington said. "Unselfish plays — a lot of extra passes for 3s. Ian (Milsteadt) stepped up and started hitting some shots. We needed that. When people like Ian and Jordan (Dehm) and Chris (Daniels) are hitting, it's tough to stop us."
Eureka improved from 41 percent shooting in the first half to 54.8 in the second. The Red Devils also significantly cut down their turnovers, committing just three compared to 11 in the first 20 minutes of play.
After trailing the Griffins by one point at halftime, EC pushed the lead to as many as 19 points in the second half after a key 12-4 run with 7:19 remaining.
There was a two-handed slam by Banks off a feed from Dehm. Then, Dehm knocked down a jumper and a corner 3 on an assist by Bennington, followed by a bank in transition off another delivery from Bennington.
Another Dehm bucket made it 91-72 with 4:48 remaining.
The Red Devils had to grind to get that cushion. EC went ahead on a jumper by Banks less than four minutes into the second half, but the maroon and gold didn't get it to double figures until an athletic and-one by Milsteadt on an assist by J'Len Crawford (Bloomington, Ill./Bloomington) with 12:55.
After going scoreless twice last week, Milsteadt found a groove and contributed his first double figures scoring game since Jan. 25.
"It was just getting back to myself, playing with confidence and doing what I can to win," the junior transfer from Illinois Central College said. "It felt good."
After a string of free throws by Andrew Gonzalez (Mundelien, Ill./Mundelein), Milsteadt and Crawford, Milsteadt drilled a 3 to make 73-59 with 9:51 remaining.
The up-tempo, physical nature of the game led to a slew of foul shots for the home team. While it wasn't the Red Devils' best free-throw shooting night (75 percent), the team scored 24 at the line, putting enough away to pad the lead.
By the time it was over, every Red Devil had checked into the game.
The win avenged one of EC's toughest losses of the season — 114-110 overtime defeat at Fontbonne last month.
"We've had a lot of hard, close losses, and it's just like, you've got to come out and play your hardest no matter who it is," Bennington said. "There's no games you can just walk in and win if you don't play hard. That's what we took away from it, and obviously you get a little chip on your shoulder when you lose a game like that."
On Saturday, the Red Devils' final stretch continues with a 2 p.m. meeting at Spalding. Then, next week they take on the league's top teams in Webster and Greenville.
It's reminiscent of EC's unlikely road to the SLIAC Tournament championship last year, when the Red Devils rolled in their final four league games.
"That seems to be how we like to do it," Bennington said. "We're locked in and ready."