Preview: Eureka Ready For SLIAC Semifinal Versus Blackburn

Photo courtesy of Michelle Curl.
Photo courtesy of Michelle Curl.

GREENVILLE, Ill. -- The Eureka College men's basketball team will take the floor in a St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament game for the first time since 2013 when the second-seeded Red Devils square off against third-seeded Blackburn Thursday in a 6 p.m. semifinal in Greenville, Ill.

PDF Version of Eureka Men's Basketball Game Notes

The top four teams in the final SLIAC regular season standings -- Greenville, Eureka, Blackburn and Westminster -- have qualified for the league's annual postseason tournament.  The tournament winner will represent the SLIAC in the NCAA Division III Tournament. 
Greenville went 14-4 against SLIAC opponents -- including five consecutive league wins in February -- to win its third consecutive regular season-championship and the right to host the SLIAC Tournament for the second year in a row.
The upcoming event marks the 23rd SLIAC Tournament since the league began competition during the 1990-91 season. Eight different schools have won at least one SLIAC Tournament title, seven of which are still an active member of the league.  Fontbonne and Westminster have each won a league-high five SLIAC Tournament championships.
Westminster is in the field for a league-record 19th time. The Blue Jays own the all-time lead with 20 wins at the event.  Fontbonne has posted the tournament's best historic win percentage at .696 (16-7).
Westminster won last season's tournament, downing third-seeded Webster in the semifinal 75-61 and top-seeded Greenville 128-121 in the championship game.
The SLIAC is a combined 0-21 in the NCAA Division III Tournament since the league first received an automatic bid in 1995. The SLIAC representative has been within single digits of its first-round opponents five times in the previous 10 seasons, including Webster's 71-70 loss at Illinois Wesleyan in 2014.
Eureka finished the regular season 18-7 overall and 13-5 in the SLIAC to secure sole possession of second place in the final league standings. The Red Devils are roaring into the SLIAC Tournament, having won five consecutive games by an average of 22.2 points in the month of February.
The Red Devils' 18 wins are their most prior to the start of a conference tournament since 1993-94, their 13 SLIAC wins are the most since joining the league in 2006 and their 11 home victories represented the program's highest total at the Reagan Athletic Complex since 2012-13.
Eureka scores 90.5 points per game to match last season's average that was a single-season school record. Three Red Devils score at least 17.0 points per game -- junior Shea Feehan (30.8), junior Hank Thomas (17.6) and sophomore Dakota Bennington (17.0). All three players ranks among the top-12 in the SLIAC in scoring and represent the top scoring trio in the league. Feehan ranks fourth on Eureka's all-time scoring list with 1,574 points and his 2017-18 total of 646 is seven shy of tying Chris Peterson's single-season school record of 653 set in 1993-94.
Bennington, who made his Eureka debut against Dominican (Ill.) on Dec. 19 after transferring from NAIA Olivet Nazarene, has also emerged as the Red Devils' top rebounder with 7.3 per game. Senior guard Ryan McElmurry finished the regular season with 141 assists, second-most in the SLIAC, 16th-most in Division III and eighth-most in a season in program history. The Galesburg native is one assist away from becoming the 21st player of Eureka's Division III era to reach 200 career assists and the first since Jordan Kindred during the 2011-12 season.
The Red Devils are in their 40th season as a member of NCAA Division III and their 12th season as a member of the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Eureka returns three starters, all juniors, from last season's 13-win team that broke the program's single-season record for team scoring with 90.5 points per game. In all, EC returns 18 letterwinners from last season.
Eureka will be competing in a conference tournament for the ninth time since beginning competition in a league affiliated with NCAA Division III in 1996. The Red Devils went 1-4 in four Northern Illinois-Iowa Conference Tournaments (2003-06), earning its lone victory over Dominican (Ill.), 65-61, in a 2004 quarterfinal.
The Red Devils are in the SLIAC Tournament for the fifth time. EC owns a combined 3-4 record in the event and advanced to championship games in 2007, 2010 and 2013.
Eureka went 10-8 to tie for third place in the SLIAC standings in 2015-16 -- one of five top-three SLIAC finishes in 11 seasons under head coach Chip Wilde -- but was bumped out of the 2016 SLIAC Tournament by the league's tiebreaker system.
Picked ninth in the league this season in a preseason SLIAC coaches poll, Blackburn is in the SLIAC Tournament for the first time since 2006 with a 14-11 overall record and a 10-8 SLIAC mark. BC won four of its last six games, including dramatic back-to-back overtime decisions in the final week of the regular season that allowed BC to squeeze into a third-place tie in the standings and oust Webster in a tiebreaker for one of the final two slots in the tournament.
Blackburn boasts a balanced offense with no player scoring more than 14.0 points per game and four players averaging at least 10.1 per contest. Sophomore Karson Hayes leads the way with 14.0 per game, followed by Duncan King (13.2), Reed Rusten (11.5) and Malcolm Scott (10.1). Scott is the team's best rebounder with 8.0 per game and Nigel Ferrell paces the Beavers with 3.5 assists per game.
BC ranked third in the SLIAC and 38th nationally with 229 steals in the regular season. King's 39 steals were sixth-most in the league and ranked among the top 200 individual totals nationally.
The Beavers are making their 12th SLIAC Tournament appearance. Blackburn is 13-8 overall at the event, winning championships in 1991, 1992 and 2005.
EC owns a 40-18 record against BC since 1974. The two programs will be meeting in the SLIAC Tournament for the first time. Thursday's bout is also the first neutral-site meeting on record between the two schools.
Eureka and Blackburn split their regular-season SLIAC series. The Red Devils were without Shea Feehan (injury) and Dakota Bennington (pre-transfer) when the Beavers beat the Red Devils in Carlinville on Dec. 9, 78-61. Hank Thomas scored 18 points for Eureka, which trailed 38-32 at halftime. Savion Smith paced the Beavers with 13 points.
The Red Devils returned the favor with a 103-76 drubbing of BC at the Reagan Athletic Complex on Jan. 27. Feehan went off for 41 points and Bennington dunked a Hank Thomas lob in the second half that was featured on ESPN2's "College Basketball Live" later that night.
The owner of more than two decades of coaching experience at the collegiate level, Chip Wilde is in his 11th season as head coach at Eureka. The current campaign marks Wilde's 20th season as a collegiate basketball head coach. Wilde has proved to be one of the most successful head coaches in the storied history of Eureka men's basketball, establishing the Red Devils as a steady presence in the SLIAC both on the court and in the classroom. Wilde has 135 wins at EC, third-most in the 99-year history of the program.
The 2017-18 season is Steve Kollar's third as head coach at Blackburn. Kollar is 36-39 overall in Carlinville and 28-26 against SLIAC opponents. Kollar is a 2005 graduate of Elmhurst where he played for Eureka College Hall of Famer Mark Scherer.
Tournament host Greenville (17-8, 14-4 SLIAC) is the top seed and will play fourth-seeded Westminster in Thursday's 8 p.m. semifinal. Like Eureka, the Panthers won five consecutive league games in the month of February. Westminster (14-11, 10-8 SLIAC) lost its regular-season finale to Blackburn last Saturday, but nabbed the final spot in the tournament after Webster lost later in the day at Greenville. The semifinal winners will meet Saturday at 1 p.m. in the championship game in Greenville.