By Blake Baxter
LINCOLN, Neb. — On March 15, 1994, the Eureka College men's basketball team captured the national championship banner that still proudly hangs above Christine Bonati Bollwinkle Arena.
And then, every Red Devils' season for the next 24 years ended in February.
Talented teams, transcendent players and different coaching staffs came and went, but EC never quite fell on the right side of the hump, earning its right to play on a national stage.
Well, that streak's over now.
On Friday, Eureka (13-14) will make its NCAA Division III Tournament debut against No. 1 Nebraska Wesleyan (26-1) in the program's first March game since that magical championship season. The Red Devils will tip off against the defending national champions on their own home court at 7:30 p.m.
EC head coach Chip Wilde says all those experiences of falling short prepared this group not just to leave its mark, but also to fully comprehend the magnitude of the moment.
"They've seen those struggles, so they know what that means and how hard it is to do," the 12th-year coach said. "On the flip side, they've seen their friends celebrate. They've seen the women's basketball team, the football team enjoy themselves (with conference championships). So I think there probably isn't another group more appreciative of this opportunity."
That was evident to those who witnessed the joyous aftermath of EC's 70-69, St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tourney-clinching win last weekend.
After freshman Jalen Hosea launched the ball to the other side of the court and the time went off the clock at Grant Gymnasium, the Red Devils' bench stormed the floor as a unit. But their reactions all differed.
They had never done this before; no one quite knew what to do.
Some screamed and shouted and pushed and shoved each other while they were mobbed by their fans. Others, like Hosea and senior Hank Thomas, quickly located their family members in the crowd. Junior Jordan Dehm went on a mission to collect the game ball, while senior Alex Wiegand hardly reacted at all.
It meant something different to everyone on that roster in their own way.
If you watch the various videos taken of that night, over and over again, you'll see senior Donald Hardaway Jr. with his jersey in his teeth and his hands over his eyes. The tears just wouldn't stop falling.
"All the emotions just came out," Hardaway said on Tuesday. "I tried to hold it back, but Buck (student assistant coach Ryan McElmurry) told me, 'Just let it go, let it out; you've been through a lot,' so it all just came out."
Five years ago, Hardaway was a walk-on at Division I Weber State, and the Wildcats captured Big Sky Conference season and tournament titles. But the freshman from Lansing, Illinois, didn't get to play and the rings never felt like his own.
He soon left school, and after playing a year at Daley Community College, enrolled at Eureka in fall 2017.
"Coming here and winning my final year, it just felt great," said Hardaway, who has been the Red Devils' sixth man this season. "I didn't take the net off my neck until yesterday."
Junior Austin Juergens also marveled at how far he's come since joining the program.
"It's crazy because my freshman year, I got the No. 55; I got the biggest jersey on the team," he said with a laugh. "I wasn't in the rotation, so that just gave me room to improve, and motivation. And then my sophomore year, I got into the mix a little bit more, and then it just took off from there."
He was also the beneficiary of a twist of fate beyond his control.
After two seasons of honing his defense against the nation's second-leading scorer and the SLIAC's Player of the Year, Shea Feehan, the Pekin native learned that Feehan planned to transfer to Division I Evansville for his final season.
"After we lost at Greenville last year against Blackburn in the playoffs, he (Feehan) told me 'I expect big things out of you,' and it was kind of at that point, I figured he was leaving," Juergens said. "Which gave me the motivation to push myself, because I knew what I was capable of."
He's shown it this year, stepping into the vacant starting spot and averaging 13.1 points per game while shooting 48.4 percent from the floor. He's scored 20 points or more four times and went for a career-high 31 in a late-season conference win over MacMurray before nearly matching it with a 29-point performance against Greenville last Friday.
After the Webster win, no one was less surprised than Dehm, the team's leading rebounder (8.9 boards per night) and do-everything emotional leader.
At the beginning of the season, Dehm noted his dissatisfaction with the SLIAC preseason poll on Twitter. Voted to finish fifth in the conference, he tweeted "It's just gonna make it that much sweeter when we do win the league." He made it his pinned tweet in October and left it up all year without a second thought.
After Eureka completed its season turnaround with the conference crown, Dehm posted screenshots of the doubters who were making fun of his prediction back when the team started off 2-10, and added the hashtag #IKeepAllTheReceipts.
Social media fun aside, he says the sentiment was genuine from the beginning. He really felt the Red Devils were the most talented team in the conference, and that came from a strong four-game stretch they played without Feehan last year due to an ankle injury.
"When we played together, we won like four in a row without Shea, so I knew we were going to be something special," Dehm said. "Like, we have the talent, we have the players to be able to use it … it was just about getting it done."
The Red Devils, who average 93.6 points per game (sixth in the nation), feature two ultra-experienced and accomplished seniors in the starting lineup. Thomas, the gutsy point guard guiding the ship, was selected Second Team All-SLIAC and SLIAC Tournament MVP after averaging 27.5 points and 8.5 assists per game last weekend.
Going into the last tournament of his career, he's the only Red Devil to be in the top 10 in program history in career 3-point field goals (222, second all-time), points (1,564, fifth) and assists (314, seventh).
Wiegand, a SLIAC All-Defensive team selection, is second in program history in blocked shots (107), tied for fifth in games played (103), and is 11 boards away from reaching the top 10 in rebounds. He averaged a double-double of 15 points and 11.5 boards in the SLIAC tourney.
Junior Dakota Bennington, meanwhile, has raked in the lion's share of recognition this year, collecting SLIAC Player of the Week honors three times, receiving First Team All SLIAC honors and setting the school record for points in a game (51).
A high-flying guard at 6-foot-3, Bennington enters this weekend averaging 23.1 points per game on 51.5 percent shooting. With family from the Lincoln and Omaha area, he'll be playing on familiar territory for the first time.
Nebraska Wesleyan is known for spreading the floor and creating high-percentage looks. The Prairie Wolves, who seized the national title after earning their first NCAA tourney bid since 2001 last year, produce 91 points per game on 54.2 percent shooting and make 33.6 field goals per game.
All five starters average double figures, with Ryan Garver and Nate Schimonitz each posting 16.2 points per game and leading rebounder Cooper Cook (seven boards per night) following at 14.8. Four of the five are returnees from the title team.
Like Eureka, the NWU men are coming in hot, winners of eight straight after avenging their only loss of the season with a 97-79 rout over No. 18 Loras College in the American Rivers Conference Tournament final. Garver was one assist shy of a triple-double, notching 33 points, 10 boards and nine assists for the Prairie Wolves.
Wilde says they don't have any obvious weaknesses, so the margin for error will be slim for the only team in the tourney field with a losing record.
Still, the Red Devils remain ready for March madness to come to Lincoln.
"We definitely match up well; I've watched some film," Juergens said. "We're ready to shock the nation."