All-American moves up to smaller role

By Thomas Donley, @tdonleyde

Weeks of patience are starting to pay off for transfer junior guard Blair Stephenson.

The former NJCAA Division II All-American made her first career NCAA start Sunday against Evansville because sophomore starting point guard Rishonda Napier suffered a shoulder injury against Indiana State on Jan. 16.

Stephenson provided mixed results, scoring a career-high 12 points, but also recording 5 turnovers and 2 assists.

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She played 25 minutes in Sunday’s game, 15 more minutes more than her season average.

Stephenson ranked 10th in the country, at the NJCAA level, averaging 6.2 assists a game as a sophomore. She also averaged 17.0 points a game last year at Lake Land College in Mattoon and earned an All-American nod.

She was Lake Land’s team MVP both seasons she played there.

Stephenson said the reduction in floor time from last year to now does not bother her because she has a team-first mindset.

“It’s just about doing whatever I have to do to help get the win,” Stephenson said. “That’s all that matters to me. I always want to play a decent amount of minutes, but whenever I get my chance in a game, I’ve got to take advantage of it.”

Coach Cindy Stein said Stephenson has handled the drop off in playing time well.

“I think she’s been a phenomenal team player,” Stein said. “She’s always into the game mentally. There’s no complaints there. She’s always ready to go.”

Stephenson said she knew she wanted to play for SIU, but never thought she would actually become a Saluki. She fell in love with SIU while attending team camp in the summer of 2010, just before the start of her senior year at Cardinal Ritter High School in St. Louis. Stephenson noticed the Saluki family-feeling and wanted to be part of it.

It was in her freshman year at Lake Land that Stephenson first caught Stein’s eye.

Stephenson’s Lakers faced Illinois Central College in Stein’s only year there as coach. Stein said Stephenson left an impression on her.

“She had a phenomenal defensive game and did a lot of really good things offensively,” Stein said. “So that led to us recruiting her in her sophomore year.”

Stephenson’s reputation was noticed before she came to Carbondale. Junior guard Cartaesha Macklin said the Salukis knew all about Stephenson before she joined the team.

“We knew everything about her,” she said. “We were excited. Anybody that’s coming in with competition always makes the team better.”

Stephenson has had to adjust to faster, stronger opponents. Stein said she is impressed with how Stephenson has handled that task.

“She’s catching up with the speed and the physicality of the game,” Stein said. “She had it, but when you’re not getting the minutes or the reps early, there’s an adjustment in each game.”

Thomas Donley can be reached at [email protected] or at 536-3311 ext. 269

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