Eureka Takes Down Webster, Clinches First SLIAC Championship in Program History, 70-69

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

WEBSTER GROVES, Mo. – The Eureka men's 13-year wait is finally over.

The Red Devils captured their first-ever St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament championship on Saturday night with a 70-69 victory over top-seeded Webster on its own court.

And now, they're headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. 

After outgunning Greenville in the semifinals on Friday, it all came down to one stop on Saturday.

With 12 seconds left, Webster had the ball trailing by one. The Gorloks put the ball in the hands of their best player. Josh Johnson, who just hit the game-winner in the semifinals against Blackburn on Friday night, penetrated the lane and tried to do it again from the right side.

But EC junior Jordan Dehm (Metamora, Ill./Metamora) stepped and swatted it out of bounds with five seconds remaining.

"We were just saying, 'One stop, and we're champs,'" Dehm said. "And that's just what happened."

Webster's Enrique Tankins then caught the inbound, drove and promptly lost control as the Red Devils pinched the paint. With time disappearing, he tried to get something up, but it wasn't to be for the Gorloks. EC freshman Jalen Hosea (Peoria, Ill./Richwoods) retrieved the misfire and chucked it to the other side of Grant Gymnasium as Red Devil nation stormed the court.

And just like that, the celebration began and history was made for a team that started off the season 2-10 and was on the periphery of the SLIAC tourney field on the last day of the conference season.

"I'm so happy right now," Dehm said after a joyous net-cutting ceremony. "This is a great moment. I love this. We've worked so hard for this. We've had so many setbacks and so much stuff going on. It's just awesome. I love these guys, and I can't wait to keep playing."

The Red Devils (13-14) will learn who and where they will be playing next weekend on Monday at 11:30 a.m. Fans can tune in to the selection show on NCAA.com.

But regardless of the details, it will be Eureka's 11th national tournament appearance in school history. It's the fifth for the men's basketball program and first since 1994, when the Red Devils seized the NAIA national title. The program's other national tourney bids came in 1987, 1992 and 1993..

Since joining the SLIAC in 2006, EC made the SLIAC Tournament six times, including five in Chip Wilde's 12-year tenure at the helm. 

This was a long time coming.

"You just have to stay the course," Wilde said. "No matter what you do, you've got to stay the course. Whether it's through a game, through a season, through 12 years at Eureka, you've just got to stay the course.

"It's just so much fun to see them having fun the right way. It's just so sincere and so genuine, and that's what makes it so fun."

Senior Hank Thomas (Peoria, Ill./Richwoods) led the way for the Red Devils, piling up a team-high 23 points while hitting 5-of-8 3-point tries, passing out a team-high five assists and gathering four rebounds.

Junior Dakota Bennington (Peoria, Ill./Peoria Christian/Olivet Nazarene), who notched a team-high 37 points in the Greenville victory, followed with 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting, along with four assists and four rebounds.

Dehm was two boards short of a double-double, finishing with 13 points and eight rebounds to go with two mammoth blocks, one the most significant of his career. Senior Alex Wiegand (Washington, Ill.) reached double-double status with 10 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. Both front-court players played all 40 minutes for Eureka.

Junior Austin Juergens (Pekin, Ill./Pekin) added seven points and four assists, and senior Donald Hardaway Jr. (Lansing, Ill./Cimarron Memorial/Daley), Hosea and junior Koby White (Brimfield, Ill./Brimfield) filled out the rest of the Red Devils' rotation on this historic night.

EC had to grind it out from start to finish for it to come to fruition.

In the first eight minutes of the game, the Red Devils looked like they had never stepped off the court from playing Greenville the night before.

During that time, they played at a different speed than the home team was ready for, building a 10-point lead while shooting with confidence and breaking down Webster's zone defense with relative ease. But the pace would eventually slow down considerably, and the Gorloks started looking more and more like the team that bruised its way to a SLIAC regular-season title.

With 12:08 left in the half, Thomas knocked down a 3-pointer from NBA range that made it 22-12 – EC's largest advantage of the night.

However, Webster answered with a pair of triples by Elijah Macias out of a timeout that put the Gorloks within three. And, after the seven-minute mark, Webster made a series of plays on both ends of the court that resulted in a 6-0 run to tie the game.

The home team took the lead three times in the final five minutes, but a 3-pointer by Dehm with under a minute remaining ultimately gave EC a one-point advantage at the half.

"Webster's really good," Wilde said. "It's hard for us to match up with them offensively, and we created some problems of our own, but they just have really, really solid basketball through two, three, four guys on their bench."

The second half was mostly a neck-and-neck, back-and-forth affair. EC led by four after Thomas drilled a pair of 3s and hit a jumper in an 8-2 run that made it 49-45 with 15:57 left, but Webster answered with a trey by Nigel Wilcox two possessions later.

The Gorloks seized a 65-59 lead with a pivot and bucket down low by Wilcox with 6:50 left, but EC responded with an 8-0 run to regain the lead.

It was tied at 67-67 with five minutes left, and the Red Devils didn't allow another field goal the rest of the way. Their last basket came when Bennington scored on a second-chance opportunity on a baseline floater that made it 70-67 with 2:01 remaining.

Despite a pair of free throws by Johnson, it proved to be enough.

"The one and only championship," Thomas said. "When you say it, it just sounds crazy because of all the talent that's been here. I've played with a lot of good teams and this was the best team as far as chemistry goes.

"We were 2-10 and we stuck together. We didn't fold. We stuck it out. Three seed and we just beat the one seed on their home court, that just speaks volumes."

After the game, Thomas and Bennington were both named to the SLIAC All-Tournament Team. Thomas, whose name now appears in the EC record book in nine different statistical categories, was named Tournament MVP.

When the clock struck zero, Thomas said he felt like he blacked out during the court-storming pandemonium. Then, he found his dad in the stands.

"If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be playing basketball," Thomas said, tearing up. "I tore my ACL my sophomore year of high school, so in my eyes I shouldn't even be here. But I'm here and I made it, making history.

"It just means so much to me."

After the game, a satisfied and grateful Wilde spoke at length about all the support he and the team has received from members of the EC basketball family during this remarkable run.

"It's for this team," he said, "but this championship is obviously for the guys that came before us, too."