CEDAR FALLS — The University of Northern Iowa women’s basketball team has grown up.
A group that began the season looking to replace three starters with a roster that includes one senior, four sophomores and five freshmen has evolved into one of those teams that nobody wants to play in the postseason.
That journey begins Friday at 8:30 p.m. for the Panthers (17-12 overall, 13-5 Missouri Valley Conference) when they open the Missouri Valley Conference tournament at the TaxSlayer Center in Moline, Ill., against Illinois State.
UNI has won seven of its last eight games, and the only setback was a five-point loss to league champion Drake.
“What we’ve been able to do over the last five weeks ... this team has just steadily progressed and that’s what you want this time of year,” said head coach Tanya Warren. “So I feel really good about how we’re playing, especially on the offensive end.”
The Panthers have played in four of the last eight MVC tournament title games. They won in 2010 and ‘11, but fell the past two seasons. Ellie Howell is one of the veterans who knows what it takes to make it to Sunday.
“A lot of grit, a lot of toughness,” said the junior. “Winning three games in three days is tough, so I would say just going into it with a tough mindset and being physically tough.
“Mentally is where it really comes into play. We need to be playing our best, but we also need to be able to understand what it’s going to take to get wins, and that’s just doing the little things and making plays when it matters.”
UNI is averaging 63.2 points per game overall, but 68.5 over its last eight games. Kennedy Kirkpatrick (10.7 ppg), Megan Maahs (10.4) and Howell (10.0) have been consistent sources of offense all season.
Defensively, the Panthers have held opponents to 57.4 points and 38 percent shooting on the year.
Warren said UNI will have to be at its best to get past a talented Illinois State team.
“They have a great inside presence in (Simone) Goods, who I believe has a great chance to win newcomer of the year,” said Warren. “She has put up great numbers (13.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg).
“Then they have one of the best overall defensive players in Hannah Green. Not only can she defend and led the Valley in blocks but she’s a nightmare in terms of matching up with her ability to shoot the 3 and her athleticism in terms of being able to put it on the floor, and she can post. Then they have some really good shooters, as well.”
The Panthers defeated the Redbirds 58-36 and 66-48 during the regular season, but it’s a different game in March.
“It was a dogfight here (Feb. 23 in the McLeod Center),” said Warren. “I think any time you play a team three times, you know each other extremely well and in my opinion it’s going to come down to who executes the best, especially down the stretch.”
The winner of Friday’s game advances to Saturday’s semifinals against either Missouri State, Bradley or Evansville. Missouri State, the No. 2 seed, handed the Panthers two of their losses this season.
Make no mistake, UNI would dearly love another crack at Missouri State and then Drake. Those are the only Valley teams the Panthers haven’t defeated this season.
But first things first.
“That’s always going to be there in the back of your head,” said Howell. “And that’s the ultimate goal, to get to that game (the finals) so we can get another chance at getting into the NCAA Tournament.
“That’s where we’d like to be, but first we’ve got to focus on this game Friday night.”