EUREKA – The Eureka men's basketball team scrapped their way back from down 18 points to seize a gritty 79-76 victory over Westminster to open St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference play on Wednesday.
It marked the team's biggest comeback victory in almost 13 years. On Jan. 31, 2009, Eureka came back from down 23 points with 12:45 to go at Fontbonne and completed the comeback with a buzzer-beater by Jordan Kindred.
On Wednesday, Eureka – which was missing three key players due to COVID-19 protocols – got off to a slow start and fell into an 18-point hole with 10:48 left in the first half.
The team chipped away at the lead until it was down to six points at halftime, setting up a dogfight for last 20 minutes of the game with the Blue Jays.
The Red Devils outscored Westminster 43-34, outshot the Blue Jays 46.4 percent to 36.7 percent from the field, knocked down six threes and kept their composure, only turning the ball over four times.
When it was all over, Eureka was celebrating a cathartic conference-opening win. The Red Devils only led for just over six of the 40 minutes of play.
"I just never felt it was out of reach," EC head coach Chip Wilde said. "I was reading the scoreboard, but I wasn't necessarily believing it. We just stayed the course. I thought we had a lot of faith and patience."
Leading scorer Charlie McKinty (Elmwood, Ill./Elmwood) was the epitome of the Red Devils' steadfast approach on Wednesday. After a scoreless first half, the junior's faith and patience was rewarded with a 23-point second half in which he shot 7-for-11 from the field and sunk 5 of 9 3-point attempts.
"In the locker room, Coach Ryan (Mulcrone) and Coach Wilde kind of pulled me aside, they challenged me to step up," McKinty said. "I'm supposed to be one of the leaders on the game, they called me out and I had to respond."
He finished as the maroon and gold's leading scorer. Junior guard Austyn Ellison (Hudson, Ill./Bloomington Central Catholic) followed with a career-high 16 points in 24 strong minutes off the bench after coming back from COVID-19 protocols.
"He hasn't practiced in quite a while, but he was ready to go," Wilde said. "He's a self-motivator anyway. He's a guy who is going to stay ready, so it didn't surprise me."
He hit 4 of 6 from distance and three assists, while J'Len Crawford (Bloomington, Ill./Bloomington) added 10 and five rebounds. Sophomore transfer Zach Briggs (Decatur, Ill./Decatur MacArthur) tallied a career-high nine points and played solid defense in a career-high 23 minutes off the bench, and Ian Milsteadt (East Peoria, Ill./East Peoria) and Blake Castonguay (Watseka, Ill./Watseka) each had eight.
Castonguay, who notched a career-high in points, also contributed a major steal second-half steal. Down six with 8:32 left, Ellison hit a jumper to make it a four-point game and Castonguay proceeded to swipe the in-bounds pass, which led to another bucket for Ellison.
The team also got good minutes from freshman Sam DeJesus (Delavan, Ill./Delavan) in his second collegiate game, and saw junior Andrew Gonzalez (Mundelein, Ill./Mundelein) come up with three big rebounds in five minutes in his season debut after coming back from injury.
"We got off to kind of a slow start, but this team is resilient," McKinty said. "We just kept the energy high and we got contributions from a ton of guys."
A McKinty 3-pointer off an assist by Jalen Hosea (Peoria, Ill./Richwoods) cut Eureka's deficit in half shortly after halftime.
Westminster stretched the lead back to seven, but another McKinty 3-pointer trimmed the lead to two for the first time since the beginning of the game. The teams continued to trade punches, with neither letting the other to go on enough of a run to take control.
Westminster stayed ahead until inside the last six minutes of the game. An Ellison triple on a second-chance scoring opportunity tied the game for the first time with 5:37 left and a pair of free throws by Milsteadt 30 seconds later gave EC its first lead of the night.
A 3-point play by Milsteadt with just over four minutes to play gave the Red Devils a five-point lead. Westminster didn't go away, tough. On multiple occasions, the Blue Jays made it a one-point game.
A pair of free throws by Makygh Galbreath with less than three minutes to play made it 70-69 and two more Galbreath free throws with 2:16 left made it 72-71. After the latter, the Red Devils called timeout. The play didn't materialize, but Ellison kicked it out to Castonguay in the right corner. Castonguay made a quick move around a defender and sunk a deep baseline jumper to make it 74-71.
Once again, though Westminster answered, with leading scorer Jaxon Althaus (a game-high 26 points on 11-for-23 shooting on the night) driving the lane and scooping it in to make it a one-point game. McKinty then drove, drew a foul and put away both free throws.
On the other end, Briggs batted the ball down as Althaus went up with it, and Westminster bricked a 3-pointer soon after. That led to a pair of made free throws by Castonguay.
Westminster's Emil Springs knocked down a 3-pointer with 19 seconds left to cut EC's advantage to two, but Briggs went to the line and made one more free throw to make it 79-76.
The Blue Jays' final 3-point tries to tie it up fell short, leading to a frenzy of court-storming, hugs and check bumps.
"I think that it's fun to have a good team win," Wilde said. "When you see other people step up and you get a team win like that, it's pretty gutsy and it's a lot of fun."
The win snapped a three-game losing streak for the Red Devils (5-7, 1-0 SLIAC), who were selected to finish first in the league in the SLIAC preseason poll.
"Coach told us before the year that our out-of-conference schedule was going to be one of the toughest he's had," McKinty said. "He challenged us, and the results are starting to show in these conference games."