EUREKA — The 2019-20 season came to an end in triumphant fashion for the Eureka men's basketball team and its six seniors on Saturday.
It wasn't a championship or a tournament berth-clinching win, but the Red Devils came from behind and rallied past familiar foe Greenville to claim a 137-129 victory at Reagan Athletic Complex.
Dakota Bennington (Peoria, Ill./Peoria Christian) set a celebratory tone with a 44-point performance. The senior shot 19-for-29 from the floor, recorded eight rebounds and thrilled Red Devil nation with an array of high-flying dunks.
Fellow senior Austin Juergens (Pekin, Ill./Pekin) notched a career-high 32 points on 12-of-18 shooting while hitting 8 of 9 free throws, pulling down seven rebounds and dishing four assists.
The remaining senior starter Jordan Dehm (Metamora, Ill./Metamora) gathered a team-high 15 rebounds and added eight points and five assists.
Senior Kyler Stork (Normal, Ill./Normal) put up 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting, had eight rebounds and threw down a couple of dunks of his own in his first start as a Red Devil.
Junior transfer guards Ian Milsteadt (East Peoria, Ill./East Peoria) and Chris Daniels (Peoria, Ill./Peoria) finished their first seasons in maroon and gold strong. The former contributed 14 points, six assists and four rebounds. The latter added 12 points, eight assists and six rebounds.
But at the end of the day, the guys who have been around the longest weren't talking a lot about what they just accomplished.
It was all about memories, connections and emotions.
"I'm going to miss these guys," Bennington said. "It's more than basketball' It's about these guys and bringing everybody together. I'm glad we could win it and go out on top, but the relationships mean so much more than the records and the points and everything else."
Eureka entered the day with an outside chance of making it into the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament
With a win over Greenville and a loss by either Fontbonne or Blackburn, the Red Devils would have been in. They did their part, but the other side didn't come together. EC finished the year 16-9 on the season and 11-7 in SLIAC play, falling just shy of postseason play.
"Today was about controlling what we can control," 13-year coach Chip Wilde said. "We can't control the way Greenville plays. We can't control what the officiating is going to do, and then the obvious one is that we can't control what other teams in our conference are doing. It was awesome that we did what we were supposed to do."
The Red Devils trailed by as many as 15 in the first half and went into halftime down six, with the Panthers on top 65-59.
But in the second half, the Red Devils dug deep, crashed the boards and finished with poise.
Eureka shot 76.9 percent from the floor in the second half and 67.5 percent on the game. The team also outrebounded the visitors 26-19 in the second half and 65-46 on the game. It also notched 33 assists to the Panthers' 18.
With 15:49 left in the second half, the Red Devils trailed 83-70.
Then they scored 11 unanswered, with J'Len Crawford's (Bloomington, Ill./Bloomington) 3-pointer with 12:57 left making it 83-81. A dunk by Stork tied the game, and a Milsteadt layup gave EC the lead and capped a 15-0 run.
The Red Devils scarcely trailed again, but the Panthers — with characteristic backcourt press and constant 3-point threat — stayed close on their heels.
When a series of free throws by Greenville leading scorer Grady Sontiago gave the Panthers a 103-102 edge, seniors Bennington and Juergens tallied the next 12 points to make it 114-103 with 5:33 left.
A Juergens layup with 3:22 remaining stretched the lead to a game-high 16-points at 125-109.
Greenville surged back within two with 39 second left, but with the help of four free throws by Juergens and one by Milsteadt, the Red Devils put the Panthers away.
The last points of the game — and the 2019-20 campaign —were scored on a pair of free throws by Dehm with six second remaining.
Dehm finished his career with a team-high 88 games played. He scored 852 points and is fifth in program history in blocked shots with 76 and 10th in rebounds with 629.
"I'm a little overwhelmed," Dehm said after a bittersweet postgame celebration. "It was a fun day, but just reminiscing on the past four years, and it's a lot of emotions.
"To win here on our home court in front of like the best crowd I've had since I've been here is pretty sweet. It's really a community feeling at Eureka."
Juergens reflected on his journey from getting jersey No. 55 as a freshman to developing into a two-year starter, helping clinch EC's first NCAA Tournament berth in program history along the way.
"It's crazy that it went so fast," he said. "I met a lot of great guys. I couldn't have asked for anything better.
"Lifelong memories I'll never forget."
Bennington transferred to EC in 2017 after starting his career at Olivet Nazarene. He walked off the floor for the Red Devils on Saturday with his name all over the EC record book.
He's fifth in in program history in field goals with 568, fifth in field goal attempts with 1,102, fifth in free throws with 314, fifth in free throw attempts with 396, sixth in career points with 1,535 and seventh in blocked shots with 55.
"I'm thankful that Chip had me come on board and that the four-year guys like Juergens and Dehm allowed me to play my game and accepted me when I transferred in," he said. "It's been a home for me and I'm just really thankful."
All told the senior class finished with 60 wins in four years, making it EC's winningest class in four years.
"You got a lot of different things mixed in here," Wilde said. "You've got transfers mixed in there with four-year guys. You've got all kinds of different positions in there. You've got all different personalities. You've got some great academics. You've got a lot of really neat things that come with those six guys as a collective group.
"So for them to be able to go out on a high note like this … I think that's what they deserve."