CEDAR FALLS — Mikaela Morgan has found comfort carving out a niche as a valuable defensive stopper.

Northern Iowa women’s basketball coach Tanya Warren has stressed that she’ll need more from her junior captain for this year’s Panthers to reach their goals.

That message appears to have been received.

Morgan scored a career high 18 points for the second time in back-to-back games as UNI opened Missouri Valley Conference play with a convincing, 70-41 win over Loyola Friday night inside the McLeod Center.

Morgan knocked down four 3-pointers on this night and finished 6 of 8 from the field, following a six 3-pointer binge during her team’s most recent game — a 72-71 upset at Kansas State eight days earlier.

This new source of offensive production has helped ignite a UNI team (5-7, 1-0 MVC) that has now strung together a pair wins for the first time in its 2017-18 campaign.

“A lot of us have gotten our confidence back to making shots and we’re clicking now offensively,” Morgan said after her team matched its season high of 50 percent shooting by making 28 of 56 shots from the field. “We’ve gotten the ball moving and we’re sharing the ball. When we do that, we’re really good. I think that’s what we’ve set our minds on.”

Searching for a spark, Warren took veterans Morgan and senior point guard Kennedy Kirkpatrick out of the starting lineup in favor of freshmen following a fourth consecutive loss at Omaha in early December.

Morgan, who went scoreless at Omaha and failed to reach double figures during the losing streak, never ducked her head. She and Kirkpatrick led the offense during the upset over Kansas State. They returned to starting roles Friday and now appear poised to help UNI navigate the MVC slate as leaders on both ends of the court.

“It’s not a problem for me either way,” Morgan said. “If I’m starting or not, I’m going to give all the effort I can.

“Every once and a while, someone is going to have a lull, it doesn’t matter who it is. It was me this time. When that happens, you’ve just got to get yourself in the gym and get back into a rhythm.”

Watching Morgan knock down practice 3-pointers at a 65- to 70-percent success rate in the two months leading up to her team’s season-opener, Warren just felt her junior needed to slow things down within games.

“I thought she was putting a lot of pressure on herself and hurrying shots,” Warren said. “She’s a captain. I never worried whether she’d earn her way back.

“I knew she would because of her work ethic and her ability to defend. It’s a matter of her understanding her role from last year has changed. We now need her to be a more consistent scorer.”

Fluid ball movement and confidence resonated throughout UNI’s lineup Friday as 19 of the team’s 28 field goals came off assists. Reserve Nicole Kroeger hit three 3-pointers and added 11 points while Kirkpatrick scored eight points and Heidi Hillyard finished with seven.

A Loyola team (2-10, 0-1) filled with newcomers (starting two freshmen and a graduate transfer) was held to 17 of 49 (34.7 percent) shooting with 21 turnovers against UNI’s aggressive “Cats” trap package.

UNI opened the game on a 10-0 run before Ellie Howell broke a five-minute scoring drought with a long two-pointer to keep the Panthers in front, 14-10. Morgan then closed the first quarter with a 3-pointer, and her team began the second stanza on a 10-0 run capped by Morgan’s traditional three-point play.

The UNI lead ballooned to 51-24 as Morgan matched her career high on a fourth 3-pointer at the 6:57 mark of the third quarter. She played just 19 minutes as the remaining quarter and a half were spent watching the second unit compete with the game in hand.

UNI 70, Loyola 41

Loyola Mn FG-A FT-A Rb As PF TP

L. Segars 23 1-3 0-2 3 0 0 2

O’Connor 30 5-9 0-0 7 0 1 11

Salmon 26 2-5 0-0 3 0 0 4

Strawbridge 28 2-6 1-1 2 2 1 5

Cerda 21 1-6 0-0 2 1 2 2

Rice 25 1-5 0-0 2 2 2 3

Meyer 6 1-1 0-0 2 0 0 2

Wallace 23 1-7 2-2 0 3 1 4

B. Segars 6 3-5 0-0 2 0 0 6

Nolan 10 0-1 2-2 3 0 3 2

Williams 2 0-1 0-0 1 0 0 0

Team 0

Totals 200 17-49 5-7 27 8 10 41

UNI Mn FG-A FT-A Rb As PF TP

Howell 20 3-6 0-0 1 0 0 6

Simon-Ressler 16 2-6 0-0 5 3 1 5

Kirkpatrick 20 3-7 2-2 3 2 0 8

Morgan 19 6-8 2-2 2 2 0 18

Maahs 15 3-3 0-0 4 3 1 6

Rucker 19 1-4 0-0 3 5 0 2

Kroeger 23 4-9 0-0 1 1 0 11

Gunnels 6 0-1 0-0 0 0 0 0

Garrison-Nickerson 2 0-0 0-0 1 0 2 0

Wheatcraft 1 0-1 0-0 0 0 0 0

Hillyard 19 3-5 1-1 4 0 1 7

Hagen 18 1-1 0-2 2 3 0 2

Gerrits 17 2-5 1-1 3 0 2 5

Robson 5 0-0 0-0 1 0 1 0

Team 5

Totals 200 28-56 6-8 35 19 8 70

Loyola 12 8 12 9 — 41

N. Iowa 17 24 17 12 — 70

3-point goals—Loyola 2-14 (L. Segars 0-1, O’Connor 1-2, Strawbridge 0-3, Cerda 0-4, Rice 1-3, Wallace 0-1), UNI 8-26 (Howell 0-1, Simon-Ressler 1-3, Kirkpatrick 0-2, Morgan 4-6, Rucker 0-2, Kroeger 3-7, Gunnels 0-1, Wheatcraft 0-1, Hillyard 0-1, Gerrits 0-2). Blocks—Loyola 2 (O’Connor 2), UNI 1 (Gunnels 1). Turnovers—Loyola 21 (three at 4), UNI 15 (Rucker 3). Steals—Loyola 10 (O’Connor 3), UNI 8 (Rucker, Kroeger 2).

Officials—Daley, Bonner, Maxey. Att.—1,234.

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Sports Reporter

Sports reporter for The Courier

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