Rishonda Napier had 13 points and 10 rebounds for the Salukis.
Nov. 8, 2013
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, Ill. - Up by as many as 12 points in the second half, Wright State withstood a late rally by Southern Illinois and held on for a 67-64 victory in the season opener for both schools, spoiling the head-coaching debut for SIU's Cindy Stein.
Despite the loss, the Salukis (0-1) showed signs they may not be the pushover everyone expects. Coming off a 5-26 season and picked to finish last in the Missouri Valley Conference this year, Southern played impressive basketball for the first 12 minutes of the game. Twice, they built 11-point leads, jumping out to a 22-11 advantage and later holding a 25-14 edge with 8:36 to go.
Crisp passing allowed seven different players to score for the Salukis in the first 10 minutes of the game, and an aggressive, man-to-man defense caused the Raiders (1-0) to miss 10 of their first 12 shots from the field.
"We had some great moments where we were talking and communicating (on defense) and everyone was on the same page," said SIU guard Rishonda Napier, who had 13 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in the game. "We're pretty dangerous when we're defending."
The tide turned in Wright State's favor when fouls started adding up for the Salukis. The Raiders had a 22-2 advantage in free throw attempts in the first half, allowing them to stake a 28-27 lead at halftime.
In the second half, WSU guard Kim Demmings, the preseason Player of the Year in the Horizon League, took over the game, scoring 23 of her game-high 31 points. She ran off nine-straight points during one stretch as the Raiders built a 49-37 lead with 10:53 remaining in the game.
"We knew that defensively we'd be challenged with the great player they have in Demmings," Stein said. "She was a handful, but I still think that we limited her. We made her take some crazy shots. She got past us a couple times, but our kids kept fighting to come back."
The Salukis steadily chipped away at the lead and could have tied it after Mercedes Griffin hit a baseline left-handed floater to cut the deficit to 57-56 with 4:30 to go. She was fouled on the play, but missed the free throw.
SIU never had possession of the ball with a chance to take the lead during the final four minutes. Dyana Pierre, who scored 12 points and grabbed 15 rebounds for Southern, made a layup with 0.6 seconds left, but Wright State was able to run out the clock on the ensuing in-bounds pass.
After watching her team lose by 15 points in an exhibition game to a Division II opponent last week, Stein was much happier with her team's performance in the first real game of the season.
"I'm proud of the way we fought, especially coming off that second exhibition," she said. "There's a lot of positive moments we can build on."
The Salukis had the upper hand in the paint, thanks to the play of Pierre and Alexus Patterson, who came off the bench to score nine points and snare six rebounds in just 18 minutes.
The free throw imbalance and turnovers were the biggest culprits in the loss. Wright State was 23-of-41 from the line, compared to 3-of-13 for SIU. The Salukis committed 18 turnovers to the Raiders' 10.
For the fifth-straight year, Southern opened the season with a loss, but Napier foresees a much-improved Saluki team this season.
"Regardless of what anybody is expecting, we know what we can do," she said. "We believe in ourselves and we've been putting in the work, and now it's time for our hard work to pay off."
Her head coach agreed.
"We expected to win," Stein said. "We're going to be in the mix more times than not."