ST. LOUIS, Mo. – The Eureka women's basketball team's postseason begins on Wednesday with a St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament quarterfinal showdown at Fontbonne.
The Red Devils have a chance to earn a SLIAC Tournament victory for the second straight year and their ninth semifinal berth in the last 11 seasons.
Eureka is seeded fifth after ending the regular season 7-7 in conference play and 11-13 overall. Fonbonne is seeded fourth after ending the regular season with an identical record in both conference play and overall, but coming out on top on the tiebreaker criteria.
The Red Devils split with Fontbonne in the regular season series, coming from behind to take down the Griffins in overtime on the road in January and getting beat by 13 at home earlier this month.
The even results give second-year head coach Jaylynn Stewart confidence that the Red Devils can match up well with the Griffins again.
"I think the overarching feeling is that we can compete with anybody in our conference," Stewart said on Tuesday. "We've already proven that we can beat Fontbonne by splitting with them this season. We think we have a pretty good grasp on their tendencies, and we are as prepared as we could possibly be to head into this game tomorrow."
Fontbonne is second in the league in field-goal percentage at 42.1 percent and third in scoring at 70.7 percent. The team has shot more than half of their total shots from beyond the arc this season and led the SLIAC with 9.7 triples per game.
The Griffins are led by a trio of seniors and have two of the top five scorers in the league in Riley Stafford and Kourtney White. Stafford, a 5-foot-6 senior guard who is the SLIAC's all-time leader in 3s, averages a league-leading 21.3 points per game on 43.6 shooting from the field while making 4.3 3-pointers per game. This season, Stafford set the conference single-season record with 91 3-pointers. She is also in the top-five in the league in free-throw percentage at 78.5 percent.
White, a 5-foot-5 senior guard, is fifth in the league in scoring with 16.3 points per game while shooting a conference-leading 60.3 percent from the field. She also leads the team with 9.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game.
Senior forward Jillian Venegas, meanwhile, averages 9.4 points per game and 7.7 rebounds per game.
The first time Eureka took on Fontbonne, the Red Devils found themselves in a deep hole, trailing by 19 in the last eight minutes of regulation.
The team had been cycling through defenses, going from man-to-man to a press to a 2-3 zone to a 1-3-1. With nothing else working, Eureka switched to a box-and-one at the suggestion of assistant coach and former area high school coach Leslie Howard.
To the coaching staff's surprise, it did the trick. The team piled up stop after stop and started scoring in transition and getting hot on the offensive end. The Red Devils scored 38 points in 12 minutes and won it in overtime, 80-75.
"We are at our best when we can push and we can make good decisions while we're pushing," Stewart said. "The finishing piece has always been making that shot when you get a good look."
It's not a secret that the Red Devils haven't been the most consistent scoring team in the league. The team enters averaging 65.1 points per game – good for fifth in the league.
There have been moments – like in the fourth quarter at Fontbonne – when the team's shooting and scoring ability has been hard to match, and the Red Devils are hoping to see that return in the postseason this week.
Senior Olivia Falls – who memorably played a big role in the comeback at Fontbonne – continues to set the bar for energy and reliability for the Red Devils. She averages a team-high 14.1 points while shooting 48 percent from the field, and she pulls down a team-high 8.5 rebounds per game – good for third in the league.
Junior Sydney Hannam, who transferred from Spoon River Community College this season, follows with 10 points per game and leads the team with 32 3-pointers this season. Her 40-percent shooting from distance ranks fourth in the SLIAC on the season.
Shakaya Rogers, a senior guard who plans to come back for a fifth season next year, is averaging just under double figures at 9.8 points per game and leads the team with 2.2 assists per game.
Juniors Savanah Moore and Abby Stotler follow with 8.9 and 7.8 points per game, respectively. Senior forward Kennedy Jackson posts 7.8 points per game and six boards per game. Senior point guard Marissa Murphy leads the team in steals with 40 on the season and adds 5.9 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game.
Freshman Josie Ness has contributed five rebounds per game in less than 15 minutes per game off the bench, and junior transfer guard Madison Jernigan has found a place in the rotation in the second half of the season, as well. She scored a season-high 14 points and hit four 3-pointers in the Fontbonne win.
The maroon and gold are coming off a 68-62 Senior Day victory over Principia in which the Red Devils weren't able to pull away but still managed to stave off a late push by the Panthers.
"We found a way to win," Stewart said. "We grinded it out, and that's what you have to be able to do this time of year."
The Red Devils enter the postseason having won six of nine games during an abnormally busy February. The endurance test has helped the team prepare for what's to come.
"We won six games in 19 days," Stewart said. "That's a pretty good feeling, but at this point in the season, it's 0-0. We're prepared, and we want to finish out this season strong for our seniors."