Saluki women head to Moline with a chance to “hang a banner”

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Dominique Martinez-Powell | @dmartinez_powell.photography

The SIU women’s basketball team participates in a pre-game team breakdown on the court before the game against the Illinois State Redbirds Jan. 20, 2022 at the Banterra Center in Carbondale, Ill.

Hanging around the rafters of the Banterra Center are maroon and white banners, each signifying a historic season of Saluki basketball. Seven maroon banners in the northwest corner of the gym represent some of women’s basketball’s greatest campaigns. Most recently, they raised a banner in 2007, the last time the team won a regular season conference championship. Next to it is the 1992 banner for the team’s last trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Over the next few weeks, the 2022 Saluki women have several opportunities to hang banners of their own. They have already clinched their first unbeaten home record since 1987, and are on the inside track to emulate those banner-hanging teams of decades past.

Cindy Stein announced in July that she will be retiring as women’s basketball head coach at the end of this season. She was hired in 2013, inheriting a team that had won just five games the previous year. Now, nine years later, the program has been built to one that is competing with the top teams in the Valley.

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The 2022 squad features six outgoing seniors, including four starters. Not only is this year’s team setting a new high mark for success not seen since the twentieth century, but for most of the team, this is the final chance for them to bring everything together. So far, it’s worked.

Makenzie Silvey is one of the leaders of the program. A fifth-year senior, she broke Saluki Hall of Famer Cartaesha Macklin’s all-time scoring record in January. The Glen Carbon native now sits 56 points away from becoming the third Saluki of any gender to reach 2,000 points, joining Charlie Vaughn and Kent Williams.

With the end of her Hall of Fame collegiate career on the horizon, Silvey is looking to keep it going as long as possible.

“I’m just trying to enjoy every day,” Silvey said. “I do know that my career’s coming to a close, but hopefully it’ll be in mid-to-late March instead of in a couple weeks in Moline. I really just want to keep a good thing going.”

The MVC’s Jackie Stiles Player of the Year award, given to the conference’s best women’s basketball player, could be awarded to Silvey. However, the frontrunner for that award is teammate Abby Brockmeyer, who is averaging a double-double with 17.7 points and 10.2 rebounds per game.

Brockmeyer is also facing the end of her collegiate career, and had high hopes coming in that the team could achieve greatness.

“We knew that this year was gonna be our year,” Brockmeyer said. “We didn’t necessarily know that we were gonna finish at the top, but we knew that we were gonna make it the best year we’ve had.”

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Sivey and Brockmeyer join fellow starters Gabby Walker and Caitlin Link, as well as Payton McCallister and Awa Keita, in wrapping up their college basketball careers this season. The six outgoing Salukis combined for 81% of the team’s scoring in 2022.

“Our seniors are huge…” Stein said. “We’ll lose a big chunk of our team, people that are record-breakers, that have made us better in every single way. Hard workers, great families, I mean, you can’t say enough about this group of young ladies.”

Postseason play is something Stein is very familiar with. As head coach at Missouri, her Tigers made the NCAA Tournament three times, last in 2006, and the WNIT four times. In her nine years at SIU, the Salukis received invites the Women’s Basketball Invitational twice, in 2016 and 2017.

While Silvey has received much attention for her breaking of the all-time scoring record, Brockmeyer is currently sixth on that list. She recently broke the 1,500 mark in career points, as well as the 1,000 mark for rebounds. She is 27 points away from passing Amy Rakers for fourth on the all-time list.

Rakers was a key member of the Salukis of the late 80’s and early 90’s, leading the team in scoring three times including a record for points in a season in 1990 that still stands today. While Brockmeyer is chasing Rakers individually, her team is trying to follow in the footsteps of those teams.

SIU has not won a conference tournament since 1990, and has not been to the NCAA Tournament since 1992. They have a golden opportunity to do both. They sit at 14-2 in MVC play, one game ahead of Missouri State with two more regular season games to play.

Their final games against Loyola-Chicago (17-10, 9-7 MVC) and Valparaiso (10-17, 8-8 MVC) will determine whether or not Southern Illinois will wrap up its first regular season championship since 2007, and the top seed in Hoops in the Heartland, the Valley’s conference tournament in Moline.

ESPN’s latest bracketology has SIU as a No. 13 seed, making the tournament as an automatic qualifier. Because the Missouri Valley Conference is a mid-major conference, it will likely take winning Hoops in the Heartland to make it to the dance, since it is difficult for mid-major programs to receive at-large bids.

With the inside track for the top seed, the Salukis would play either the eighth or ninth seed in the first round of Hoops in the Heartland if they finish the job this week. Their potential opponents would likely be a team below .500.

Southern Illinois is likely to claim that top spot, but there are no guarantees in the Valley. If they slip up in these final games, Missouri State will assume the top spot due to winning the tiebreaker in the conference standings. The players know quite well what’s at stake in the coming days.

“We’re not facing the top of the conference right now, but that doesn’t matter,” Brockmeyer said. “Every team’s out to get us, they’re out to play as hard as they can every game they play us, so we’ve just got to be ready to go.”

Outside observers would note that the Salukis being on the verge of winning the regular season conference championship is a surprise result. In recent years, SIU had posted several records slightly above .500 before bottoming out at 9-16 in 2020-21.

However, last year’s team was hampered by an early injury to Brockmeyer, and COVID derailing many other players’ seasons, including Silvey. Stein believes that the team’s ability to run it back without facing those same issues has greatly improved the result.

“We’ve said it before, this is the team we thought we had last year, we just weren’t able to play,” Stein said. “We only had four kids make it to every game, and two of them were freshmen last year.”

The Salukis’ struggles last year led them to be picked eighth in this year’s Missouri Valley Conference’s preseason poll. All season long, SIU has been able to prove that assessment wrong.

“Everyone picks us eighth, so we weren’t supposed to be here. We’ve already went against the critics,” Stein said. “We’re just trying to enjoy this, enjoy every victory, and don’t take it for granted. We want to stay humble, and we want to make sure that we stay focused.”

Although COVID derailed the women’s team last year, it also gave several players another chance to make a run thanks to the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility. Silvey, Brockmeyer, and Walker are each fifth-year players who have stretched their career for another shot at the storybook ending.

“I think it’s just experience, and we don’t have to deal with COVID anymore,” Silvey said. “We haven’t really had to deal with injuries. I think that’s just what’s bringing it all together. We know, a lot of us, our careers are coming to a close, and we just want to go out with a bang.”

Seemingly every game for the rest of the year comes with a potential milestone, and SIU has its sights set high as it inches closer towards history.

“We’re all trying to win a ring, hang a banner,” Silvey said. “That’s really all we’re focused on right now.”

With so many key players on their way out, and a head coach in her last year, Hoops in the Heartland will be the culmination of many careers. It may be the program’s best chance for a while to earn their way to an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time in decades, and a fitting final act for several pillars of the program who will go down in the history books.

Under the pressure of finishing strong and surviving an upcoming gauntlet at Moline, the Saluki women are ready for the challenge. This is their “Last Dance,” and they will fight to make sure they will get one final encore before the curtain closes.

Staff reporter Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @Brandyn_2020. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter

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