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CEDAR FALLS — A chance to achieve lifelong goals and dreams once again begins this week for the University of Northern Iowa wrestling team.

UNI coach Doug Schwab knows the focus within his team will sharpen in the days leading into the opening night of the Big 12 tournament Saturday in Tulsa, Okla. Schwab believes the right mindset will be part of the equation for postseason success as his wrestlers attempt to punch tickets into the NCAA Championships March 21-23 in Pittsburgh.

“You talk about sharpening that blade, but as far as pressure on you? None. Go out there and compete,” Schwab said during Monday’s weekly press conference. “There’s probably nothing in their life that they’ve put more time into.

“I’ve been coaching long enough and been a competitor long enough to know that the guys who squeeze real tight and try to control everything, those are ones that usually struggle, and then it slips right through their hands.”

The Big 12 Conference has secured 53 automatic qualifiers into the NCAA Championships, second only to the Big Ten. That number has increased by eight spots from a year ago.

A total of seven Big 12 wrestlers are guaranteed to advance out of the 149- and 197-pound weight classes. The 157-pound class is the only one with just one automatic qualifier.

“I think it’s good as a conference that we’re building, we’re getting better,” Schwab said. “Automatic qualifiers is certainly something that you can point to that the conference is getting stronger.”

An Oklahoma State team that handed UNI its only dual loss remains the tournament favorite, while the Panthers have found success against the rest of the league.

Schwab spoke Monday about how he wants his wrestlers to enjoy fighting for each other, making their mark in how they compete.

“Some of our guys talked yesterday about when they were a little kid, they didn’t really think much,” Schwab related. “They didn’t think about who’s next on the bracket, they didn’t think about, ‘Well, I didn’t quite feel good.’ It was just going out and competing and enjoying it. I told them if I could go back and compete now I’d enjoy it a lot more.”

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: UNI coach Tanya Warren admits a nightmare of a game at Missouri State kept her awake Friday night. The Panthers gave up 40 points off 31 turnovers in a 10-point loss to the second-place Bears before recovering with a 76-67 win Sunday at Southern Illinois.

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“I didn’t sleep at all Friday night,” Warren said. “I was kind of anxious for Sunday to get here because I wanted to see how this team responded. I was extremely proud and very pleased with how we responded. I thought we were aggressive from start to finish. We defended extremely well.”

UNI hosts Bradley at 7 p.m. Thursday and Illinois State at 2 p.m. Saturday. A pair of wins guarantee the Panthers the No. 3 seed for the MVC Tournament. Both games went down to the wire earlier this season with the Panthers losing to Illinois State, 66-64, and defeating Bradley in overtime, 81-78.

A pair of veterans may be able to add to UNI’s depth.

Rose Simon-Ressler returned from a foot injury that had sidelined her since Jan. 11 and played four minutes at Southern Illinois. Warren hopes to increase her role, while fifth-year senior Ellie Howell may be able to return from injury and play in her final home games after missing the previous seven.

“There’s no question she’s going to be able to help us and contribute,” Warren said of Simon-Ressler. “It’s just a matter of getting that rhythm back.

“Ellie is feeling a lot better. I know she went through a shooting workout today that went really well. We’re hoping for her to be able to play some minutes, especially with this being her last couple games in the McLeod Center.”

SOFTBALL: Adverse weather conditions limited UNI to four games last weekend in Oklahoma.

The Panthers were competitive at Tulsa, responding from a 10-9 loss to Illinois with a 10-4 win over the hosts, before losing to McNeese State, 7-5, and Oklahoma State, 12-0, the next day in Stillwater, Okla.

“It was not the kind of weather conditions we were hoping for when we scheduled to go to Oklahoma in the spring, but I think it was one of those tests that we needed,” UNI coach Ryan Jacobs said. “Every game that we played so far has been in pretty good conditions. The uncontrollable hasn’t come into play as much as it did this weekend.”

UNI travels to Murray, Ky., this weekend for games against Murray State, Purdue University Fort Wayne and Samford before opening league play at Indiana State on March 16.

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