MOLINE, Ill. — Today’s title game in the Missouri Valley Women’s Basketball Championships will be a backyard battle … again.
For the second straight year, Drake and Northern Iowa have played their way into the tourney finale, a 2 p.m. game at the TaxSlayer Center that will determine the conference’s automatic qualifier into the NCAA tournament.
“We’re where we want to be, but whenever you play Drake you better come ready to make some baskets,’’ Panthers coach Tanya Warren said after her third-seeded team used a fourth-quarter surge Saturday to push past second-seeded Missouri State 70-58.
UNI outscored the Lady Bears 21-10 in the fourth quarter to win their sixth straight game and earn their third consecutive berth in the Missouri Valley final.
Drake, top seeded in the conference tournament for the second straight year, also had to work to advance to the championship game but held off fourth-seeded Southern Illinois 68-59.
The Bulldogs started slowly in both halves the semifinal match-up against the Salukis, trailing by as many as 12 points, before rallying to extend its ongoing win streak to 20 games and return to the Missouri Valley title game.
“We need to start halves better than we did today,’’ Drake coach Jennie Baranczyk said. “We can’t continue to start slowly.’’
The Bulldogs’ win streak includes a pair of regular-season victories over the Panthers, an 81-64 victory in Des Moines on Jan. 19 and a 72-67 win Cedar Falls on Feb. 16.
Drake has won the last four games between the teams dating to a 2016 loss at the McLeod Center.
The Bulldogs needed overtime to get past the Panthers 74-69 in last year’s Missouri Valley title game, a match-up which saw both teams advance to the NCAA tourney.
Southern Illinois coach Cindy Stein said she believes her team lost Saturday to a team that belongs in the NCAA field this season, win or lose.
“Drake deserves an outstanding seed in the NCAA tourney whether they win the title here or not,’’ Stein said. “They’re running a fine-tuned machine right now.’’
The Bulldogs (25-7) bring the Missouri Valley’s most productive offense into the championship game, averaging 83.3 points per game, while nobody in the conference limited opponents to fewer than the 53.2 points the Panthers (19-12) have allowed in league games.
The teams know each other well, and Warren said UNI will need to mix things up a bit if it hopes to earn its first win of the season against its instate rival.
“We’ll have to try to find a way to keep them off balance,’’ Warren said. “With Drake, that’s never easy but we’ll come out and see what we can do.’’
UNI junior Mikaela Morgan said that starts with taking better care of the basketball than the Panthers did in their match-up at the McLeod Center last month.
Drake turned 19 Northern Iowa turnovers into 20 points in the game decided by five points.
“If we cut that number down and get defensive stops, it should be a pretty good game,’’ Morgan said.