MOLINE — Coaches always take the blame in a loss and credit the players in the wins. For a moment Friday, after her five-year career at SIU ended with a 73-60 loss to Wichita State at the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, Rishonda Napier turned the tables.
Napier, who logged a school record 4,110 minutes, appeared at the post game press conference sporting her letter jacket. During her five-year career, Napier and the Salukis went from winning five games, only one conference game her freshman year, to being in position to make a deep run in the conference tournament.
The senior point guard was unable to contain her emotions during the press conference.
"Coach, I'm so grateful for you. I'm so grateful for you," Napier said from the far left side of the table, pointing to fourth-year coach Cindy Stein. "My freshman year, our team went to the athletic director and we shared our vision for this program, and what we want for the Salukis, and we asked him to bring in somebody that can take us there. And she accepted the job with a bunch of knuckleheads with all the talent in the world, but we lacked discipline and we lacked toughness. And this is my last game, but I went out with three winning seasons in a row, and that's because of her."
As Kylie Giebelhausen, a junior forward who was named to the all-conference first team along with Napier, started to tear up, Stein couldn't hold it in, either. Stein reached across the table, grabbed Napier's arm, and looked her straight in the eye.
"Well, I think you did a lot along the way, but thank you," Stein said. "You guys were tough. Good kids."
SIU reached its first MVC tournament semifinal in 21 years last season, when it beat Loyola and lost to Northern Iowa. With two likely future Hall of Famers, forward Dyana Pierre and guard Cartaesha Macklin, the Salukis won 20 games for the first time since 2007 and played in their first postseason game in nine years. With four starters back and a talented freshman class, SIU finished 16-14 overall and 10-8 in the Valley.
Napier made just 4 of 16 from the field, but finished with 10 points, eight assists and four boards in 38 minutes. Her two 3-pointers gave her 276 for her career, tying Indiana State's Brittany Schoen (2008-12) for second in Valley history. Her 1,723 career points put her right behind Macklin, the Salukis' all-time scoring leader.
Giebelhausen scored 16 points but went 6 of 16 from the field, and senior forward Kim Nebo had 12 points and eight rebounds.
Wichita State (15-15) got 30 points from forward Rangie Bessard, a first team all-conference pick who grabbed three of the Shockers' 15 offensive rebounds. Her putback with 4:18 to go put the Shockers up 59-52. SIU got within two after a Giebelhausen 3 with 3:40 left, but Wichita State responded with a 6-0 run.
Napier missed the last shot of her career with 15 seconds to go, a 3-point attempt, and finished the final quarter with three assists. After helping SIU to 53 wins in her final three seasons — she redshirted in 2013-14 after five games because of a stomach ailment called gastritis — Napier took solace in leaving the Salukis in better shape than when she arrived. SIU could return seven of its top 10 players next season, as well as redshirt junior forward Celina VanHyfte.
"I'm just thankful for all my teammates that kept believin' in me, and I'd like to thank my family, everybody that supported us when we were high or low," she said. "It's been an honor to wear this jersey. It's been a privilege and it's been a pleasure. I think I'll be at peace."