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MOLINE, Ill. -- On its way to the championship game of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, the Northern Iowa women’s basketball team left Missouri State with an empty feeling Saturday.

The second-seeded Lady Bears mustered points on only one of 10 possessions after opening a one-point lead early in the fourth quarter, paving the way for the Panthers to reach the tournament’s title game for the third straight year with a come-from-behind, 70-58 semifinal victory at the TaxSlayer Center.

“Coach always talks how defense is where it all starts for us and that’s where it started for us today. We never quit,’’ said junior Ellie Howell, whose second-half shooting touch helped send UNI into today’s 2 p.m. title game against top-seeded Drake, a 68-59 winner in its semifinal against Southern Illinois.

Howell scored all but two of her-game high 20 points in the second half, including six straight points that fueled UNI’s game-winning surge.

The third-seeded Panthers and Lady Bears went back and forth throughout much of the game, with Northern Iowa clinging to a one-point lead after each of the first three quarters.

Aubrey Buckley gave Missouri State a 50-49 lead when she scored on a layup with 9 minutes, 20 seconds remaining, a margin that proved to be the last lead of the game for the Lady Bears.

The teams traded misses before Karli Rucker, a Northern Iowa freshman from North Scott, knocked down a 3-pointer from the left of the key just before the shot clock ran out and gave UNI a 52-50 lead it never relinquished.

As UNI limited Missouri State to one look, Howell scored on the Panthers’ next three possessions.

She hit a jumper at the 7:23 mark and worked her way to the line on UNI’s next two trips down the floor, connecting on four straight attempts that left the Lady Bears in a 58-50 hole with 6:17 remaining.

“It seemed like they hit big shot after big shot and we just didn’t answer,’’ Missouri State senior Liza Fruendt said.

The Lady Bears’ only basket during an eight-minute stretch that saw Northern Iowa open a 62-52 lead came on a putback by Brice Calip with 6:02 to play that pulled Missouri State within 58-52.

With Rucker at the controls of the offense, the Panthers finished off both the win and an eight-game winning streak by the Lady Bears at the line. UNI connected on 16 of 20 free throws in the final quarter to secure the victory.

“It was a gutsy performance by both teams,’’ UNI coach Tanya Warren said. “I couldn’t be more proud of how my team responded. They came out and left it all on the floor.’’

Warren also liked what she saw from Rucker, who finished with 10 points, five rebounds and four assists in 19 minutes of action off the bench.

“She did a great job of pushing the ball up the court and putting us in a position to do good things,’’ Warren said. “The experience she is getting now is only going to help her in the future.’’

In addition to finishing strong, Northern Iowa (19-12) started fast against Missouri State.

Mikaela Morgan scored 10 of her 15 points in the opening quarter, helping the Panthers grab a 14-13 advantage.

“My teammates did a great job of finding me and I was able to knock down some shots that got us going,’’ Morgan said. “We knew it would be a tough game and we needed to come out and set a tone.’’

Led by 18 points from Danielle Gitzen, the Lady Bears (20-11) shot just 39.3 percent for the game but did hit 7 of 12 shots in the third quarter to open a 45-39 lead.

A pair of 3-point baskets by Howell on feeds from Rucker during an 18-second stretch tied the game at 45-45 with 1:28 left in the quarter, positioning the Panthers for a big fourth quarter.

“Their players stepped up when they needed it,’’ Missouri State coach Kellie Harper said. “They hit big shots and had big stops and that wasn’t a good combination for us.’’


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