Red Devils Keep Their Cool, Advance to SLIAC Tourney Championship With 163-146 Win Over Greenville

Photo by Michelle Curl.
Photo by Michelle Curl.

WEBSTER GROVES, Mo. – With the season on the line, Greenville turned up the heat, but the Red Devils kept their cool.

For the second time in 11 days, the Red Devils survived a grueling scoring marathon against Greenville on Friday night at Grant Gymnasium and walked away with a 163-146 victory.

And now, they're headed to the SLIAC championship game for the first time since 2013.

They'll take on top-seeded Webster (16-3) Saturday at 7 p.m. for an NCAA Division III Tournament berth.

"We just played fearless," Eureka junior Dakota Bennington said. "Everybody stepped up, did what we needed to do. It wasn't a perfect game, but we did what we needed to do."

The victory set a new single-game scoring record for the program, eclipsing the 161-point performance against Greenville on Jan. 11,

Bennington (Peoria, Ill./Peoria Christian/Olivet Nazarene) notched a game-high 37 points on 13-of-15 shooting despite foul trouble limiting him to just 21 minutes on the night.

He wasn't the only one who had to adjust the way he played due to fouls, though. By the final minute, four Red Devils were playing with four fouls, including junior Austin Juergens (Pekin, Ill./Pekin), who quietly racked up 29 points on 11-of-19 shooting.

Hank Thomas (Peoria, Ill./Richwoods) didn't let an off shooting night prevent him from notching 32 points and a game-high 12 assists while hitting 14 of 15 free throws and making some of the biggest plays of the game.

Senior Alex Wiegand (Washington, Ill./Washington) shot 10-for-12 from the field and finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds, and Jordan Dehm pulled down 19 rebounds to go with 15 points.

And, just like in the Red Devils' previous win over the Panthers, Koby White (Brimfield, Ill./Brimfield), Drew Barth (Minonk, Ill./Fieldcrest) and Jalen Hosea (Peoria, Ill./Richwoods) all delivered.

White tallied 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting, registered seven assists and hit one of the most indelible shots of the game. Barth added nine points while stepping toe-to-toe with Greenville's press on the baseline and in the open court, while Hosea chipped in with eight points while keeping the ball moving.

EC dictated the tempo of the second half and led by as many as 17 points. But the triumph wasn't without its share of adversity.

EC encountered serious foul trouble early in the second half and conceded seven more turnovers than in the previous Greenville contest to finish with 30. The Red Devils gave up 24 offensive rebounds, which the Panthers parlayed into 32 second-chance points.

It just wasn't enough to slow them down.

"We actually felt like we played worse this time than we did the last time," EC coach Chip Wilde said. "It's all about our guys not getting shook and our guys sticking together. That's really what it's about.

"It's just the best."

The Red Devils trailed early, falling behind 9-1 in the first one minute, 40 seconds of the game. That's a nanosecond in a Greenville game, though. They quickly got back in the game by furiously attacking the basket and getting to the line.

By the end of the game, they'd put away 47 of 63 foul shots (76.2 percent), in addition to shooting 67.9 percent from the floor.

It was deadlocked at 44-44 with less than six minutes left, but EC gained the upper hand in the final four minutes.

Jordan Dehm's 3-pointer gave EC a 54-52 advantage with 3:40 left and his layup with 1:35 left extended it seven. EC's last bucket of the half by Kyle Henderson (Henry, Ill./Henry-Senachwine/Elgin) made it 73-67 at the break.

The Red Devils came out of halfltime fast, tacking on 22 points and extending the lead to 10 in the first five minutes. It grew to 14 after a 3-point play by White with 14:12 remaining.

And then, Greenville's shooters started lighting it up. Within four minutes of game time, EC's lead was gone, setting up a pressure-filled final 10 minutes of play. With the foul count soaring and physical plays racking up, the Red Devils had to stay composed.

"It's hard, especially in this game that's so high-energy and you're so amped up, but just playing them over and over again, you learn you have to keep your cool," Bennington said. "If you don't keep your cool, there's no way you're going to win."

It stayed tight for about six minutes, with each team racing back and forth and trading buckets until a dramatic series of events that gave EC its final separation.

After Greenville's Isiah Price drilled a 3 to make it a one-point game at 131-130, Thomas hit a pair of free throws and Wiegand finished at the rim on a second-chance scoring opportunity to make it 135-132.

The run continued with a transition 3-pointer by White on the next Red Devils' possession and a Thomas trey from the same area on the play after that.

That, the Red Devils say, was the dagger.

"A lot of big plays by a lot of people, but I don't know if there's any bigger plays than the back-to-back 3s by Hank and Kobe," Wilde said. "That was pretty big."

"I thought that was the end," said Thomas, who made his 100th career appearance on Friday. "They called a timeout after that, and they don't want to slow the pace. After that, I just thought it was over. I thought it was ours."

Soon after that, the Red Devils were making trip after trip to the free-throw line. Six technical fouls by Greenville helped them put it away.

Eric Williams (27 points) and Johari Dix (22) both had over 20 points for a Greenville team that shot 41.9 percent from the floor and drained 18 3-pointers. The Panthers' ended the year at 17-9.

The Red Devils improved to 12-14. After a 2-10 start to the year, they're in position to earn the program's first-ever NCAA tourney berth on Saturday.

"I've been dreaming about this since four years ago," Thomas said. "Every year we've had the talent to do it, but now we're finally here, so we've got to get it done."