For the first time in program history, the Eureka College men's basketball team is headed to the NCAA Division III National Tournament after a 70-69 win in the 2019 St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Championship game. Eureka had been 0-for-3 in their previous SLIAC championship game appearances but the #3 seeded Red Devils walked away on Saturday night with the 2019 conference title.
Eureka entered the game on a roll having defeated their last five conference opponents including a win in the first round of the tournament but they were on a hostile court where the host, and top-seeded Webster University, was 12-1 this season. The Red Devils jumped out quickly with scores from Dakota Bennington and Alex Wiegand. Eureka kept Webster at bay until the Gorloks were able to go on an 8-0 late in the first half.
Down 36-34 Red Devil guard Hank Thomas stepped up and hit a three to even the score. Jordan Dehm followed with his own triple on the Red Devils next possession to give them the lead once again and eventually take a 39-38 lead into halftime.
The Red Devils led for over 14-minutes in the first half, with a lead as large as ten points. However, the Gorloks would turn up their defensive pressure in the second half, leading them to a 43-41 lead with 17:06 left after a jumper by Aron Hopp.
But the night's star, Thomas, struck with back-to-back three's as part of a personal 8-0 run that put Eureka up 49-45. The Gorloks weathered the barrage from Thomas and clawed their way back to a 54-53 lead after a Nigel Wilcox bucket. Wilcox, a key member of the Gorloks interior defense, returned back to defend the net and threw a Red Devil shot away that lead to a fast break basket that put the Gorloks up 56-53 with 12-minutes left. At that point, the Red Devils had the lead in the game for 21 minutes compared to Webster's 4 minutes.
Webster extended their lead to six points after another Wilcox basket with just under eight minutes on the clock; the largest lead of the game for the Gorloks.
It was then that Thomas would impact the game once more. The senior guard drilled a jumper that brought Eureka back within two points. On his team's next trip down the court, he threaded a fast break pass from half-court, hitting Bennington in stride for a layup that tied the score at 65-65. After a missed shot Thomas again went into playmaker mode, dishing to Wiegand for the go-ahead layup with 5:29 left.
Hopp evened the score up for Webster but that would be the last points for the Gorloks for the next 4:32 of game action as the Gorloks missed their next four shots. The Red Devils offense did not have an easy go of it either however as the Gorloks held them to just three points over the game's final 3:39. Two of those points came from the hands of Bennington, on a jumper with 2:01 left, the final field goal of the game.
Webster's Josh Johnson hit a pair of free throws with 42-seconds left and after Enrique Tankins blocked a Red Devil shot it set up the Gorloks for a last-second winner. However, a spinning shot in the lane was off-line and fell into the hands of Eureka's Donald Hardaway Jr. to clinch the Red Devil championship with a 70-69 win.
This marks the first SLIAC Tournament Championship for Eureka in men's basketball since joining the league in 2006. Hank Thomas finished with 23 points and five assists, earning Tournament MVP honors. Dakota Bennington was also named to the All-Tournament team after putting up 17 points in the championship game.
Webster was led by Josh Johnson's 15 points. Johnson and Nigel Wilcox both earned All-Tournament honors for the Gorloks and were joined by Blackburn College's Karson Hayes and Greenville University's Johari Dix.
- #SLIACtion -