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MOLINE, Ill. – Poise was the main point of emphasis for University of Northern Iowa women’s basketball coach Tanya Warren entering Friday night’s quarterfinal in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.

When Southern Illinois’ junior 1,000-point interior scoring machine Nicole Martin powered her way through contact for a traditional three-point play that gave the Salukis their first lead of the second half with 2-minutes, 39-seconds remaining, UNI pulled together.

A Panthers’ team that has overcome a litany of injuries — including a pair of the season-ending variety to former all-conference standouts — buckled down with no margin for error during a 66-63 victory inside the TaxSlayer Center.

UNI (20-11) has secured its third 20-win season in the last four years, while advancing to a fifth consecutive tournament semifinal.

“Who would have thought at the beginning of the year that we’d have this much adversity?” said Taylor Hagen, one of two UNI seniors who competed in this late-night victory. “But we overcame it and I love this team.”

Composure was revealed throughout UNI’s lineup over the final two minutes.

Sophomore point guard Karli Rucker responded to a newfound deficit that Martin created by using her quickness to tie the game at the free throw line before darting to the basket for a go-ahead layup with one minute to play.

When SIU’s Brittney Patrick answered with a go-ahead 3-pointer on the ensuing possession, Hagen took Martin off the dribble for a go-ahead layup with 17 ticks on the clock.

“We had a play called, but she was up in my shorts so I just thought, ‘Go to the rim, try to make a play, try to drive, draw a foul, something,’” Hagen related.

Southern Illinois’ Abby Brockmeyer then made UNI sweat it out. She generated an open look inside the elbow that bounced from the back to the front of the rim before landing in Panther forward Heidi Hillyard’s hands. Hillyard knocked down both free throws, and Southern Illinois missed a pair of 3-point looks after advancing the ball on a timeout with 3.6 seconds remaining.

“Our number one point of emphasis was poise,” Warren said. “I thought we did that as a whole. When they took the lead, we understood what we wanted to do offensively and what we wanted to do defensively.”

Different Panthers stepped up when they had their opportunity to contribute throughout this game.

Reserve Abby Gerrits scored 10 consecutive UNI points over a 4-minute, 16-second stretch of the first quarter as part of a season-high 17-point game that finished two shy of her career high.

Rucker tallied a game-high 18 points, and the 5-foot-6 native of nearby Eldridge added a team-high seven rebounds. Hagen finished with 16 points and made 6 of 7 free throws for a UNI team that shot 16 of 19 from the line.

Senior Mikaela Morgan also knocked down 3-pointers to end the first and start the second quarter as UNI overcame an early six-point deficit and entered halftime with a 39-35 lead. An 11-2 run in the third quarter pushed the advantage to as large as seven points before SIU (15-15) rallied behind its inside-out duo of guard Makenzie Silvey (16 points) and Martin (15 points).

Yet once the Salukis took the lead, UNI didn’t panic.

“We stuck together,” Rucker said. “Getting stops on defense, and after they did go on that little run, we really did execute on offense and got to the free throw line. I think that was big.”

UNI 66, Southern Illinois 63

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

Gunnels 19 0-3 0-0 6 0 2 0

Hagen 28 5-10 6-7 6 0 2 16

Rucker 40 6-14 5-6 7 3 0 18

Kroeger 20 0-3 0-0 0 1 1 0

Morgan 32 3-6 0-0 2 1 1 8

Iverson 0+ 0-0 0-0 0 0 0 0

Wolf 11 1-4 0-0 3 2 1 3

Hillyard 22 1-6 2-2 5 0 4 4

Gerrits 28 6-10 3-4 2 2 2 17

Team 3

Totals 200 22-56 16-19 34 9 13 66

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

Brockmeyer 34 4-14 2-4 7 3 3 10

Martin 32 6-10 3-5 4 0 4 15

Patrick 35 5-11 2-2 7 2 3 15

Silvey 39 7-13 0-1 5 1 1 16

Nelson 31 0-8 2-2 1 4 4 2

Link 9 1-1 0-0 0 1 0 3

Hartman 11 0-1 0-0 3 0 1 0

Pudlowski 6 1-1 0-0 0 1 1 2

VanHyfte 3 0-0 0-0 0 0 1 0

Team 7

Totals 200 24-59 9-14 35 12 18 63

Northern Iowa 17 22 11 16 — 66

Southern Illinois 20 15 9 19 — 63

3-point goals – UNI 6-20 (Gunnels 0-1, Rucker 1-4, Kroeger 0-3, Morgan 2-4, Wolf 1-2, Hillyard 0-2, Gerrits 2-4), SIU 6-20 (Brockmeyer 0-3, Patrick 3-5, Silvey 2-5, Nelson 0-5, Link 1-1, Hartman 0-1). Blocks—UNI 2 (Gunnels, Hagen), SIU 5 (Brockmeyer, Martin 2). Turnovers—UNI 9 (Rucker 3), SIU 9 (Patrick). Steals—UNI 4 (Hillyard 2), SIU 4 (Silvey 2).

Officials – Grinter, Small, Berger. Att. – 1,542.

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Sports Reporter

Sports reporter for The Courier

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