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CEDAR FALLS — Playing small ball with an eight-player rotation, Valparaiso spread the floor and cut through defenders.

The Crusaders buried shot after shot during the opening quarter of the University of Northern Iowa women’s basketball team’s Friday night Missouri Valley Conference home opener.

UNI’s defense eventually buckled down. The Panthers scored 21 unanswered points in the third quarter and secured a 71-52 victory over the Crusaders inside the McLeod Center.

“We were not locked into the scouting report details and we allowed them to get into a rhythm early,” UNI coach Tanya Warren said, after Valparaiso hit 8 of 13 shots and four 3-pointers to score 23 first-quarter points. “When you get into a rhythm early, all of a sudden the basket looks like the ocean. Then you’ve got to give them credit. They knocked those shots down.”

UNI (9-6, 2-1 MVC) kept pace with the Crusaders (4-10, 0-2) on offense, and took a 31-29 lead when Karli Rucker fired the ball across the court to Kam Finley for a layup. The Panthers went back up 34-32 entering intermission after the first of two Nicole Kroeger 3-pointers ended a 5-minute, 32-second drought.

With the score tied at 34 early in the second half, Mikaela Morgan knocked down a 3-pointer that sparked UNI’s run over the next 8:45 to construct a 55-34 lead. Morgan scored 15 points on 6 of 12 shooting and finished with a team-high point total for the second time in as many games.

“Just being more aggressive, that’s kind of been my goal this year,” Morgan said. “They were really spread out so it created openings for people to drive in and kick to the open shooter.”

Rucker was efficient running UNI’s guard-driven offense with 14 points, four assists and no turnovers.

“Tonight we kind of spread the floor playing small and we found the shooters and we knocked down some big shots,” Rucker said, after UNI made 53.6 percent of its second-half field goal attempts.

Valparaiso converted just one third-quarter field goal and had two shot clock violations and nine total turnovers during the momentum-shifting stanza.

“We had to decide in the locker room whether or not we were going to come out ready to play or just give them the game,” Morgan said. “We came out ready.

“It was kind of a nice relief on the defensive end because we can keep getting stops. Once everyone gets back into rhythm and is locked in, it’s more flow in the game.”

Valparaiso did hit UNI with a 12-2 run that cut its deficit to 57-46 midway into the fourth quarter. That comeback hit a snag when leading scorer Addison Stoller fouled out with 13 points.

Finley then helped UNI regain control. She scored eight of her 10 points down the stretch, adding a steal and block on defense in 21 minutes of court time.

“Kam was outstanding at Bradley and it carried over,” Warren said. “We’re going to continue to need that. She has the ability to be a spark off the bench for us on both the offensive and defensive end. The thing that I love about her is her toughness. She doesn’t back down from anything or anyone.”

UNI returns to action at 11:30 a.m. Sunday against Loyola inside the McLeod Center.

UNI 71, Valparaiso 52

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

Hamlet 29 0-3 0-0 4 2 1 0

Schaub 26 3-7 1-3 2 2 4 8

Stoller 29 4-7 4-4 5 0 5 13

Ellenson 19 3-7 2-3 2 0 4 9

Hales 37 2-9 0-0 3 2 1 5

Pitts 14 0-1 2-4 3 0 1 2

Frederick 21 1-4 0-0 4 2 0 2

Schofield 25 4-7 1-2 0 0 2 13

Team 7

Totals 200 17-45 10-16 31 8 18 52

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

Rucker 34 5-11 1-2 4 4 3 14

Howell 31 3-10 2-2 8 4 2 8

Gunnels 11 1-5 0-0 2 0 1 2

Morgan 31 6-12 0-2 4 1 1 15

Hagen 3 0-0 0-0 1 0 0 0

Kroeger 16 2-4 2-2 0 1 4 8

Finley 21 4-9 2-3 1 1 1 10

Iverson 2 0-0 0-0 0 0 2 0

Simon-Ressler 3 0-0 2-2 0 0 1 2

Gerrits 23 1-5 2-2 1 1 1 4

Team 11

Totals 200 26-60 11-15 38 12 18 71

Valparaiso 23 9 4 16 — 52

N. Iowa 20 14 21 16 — 71

3-point goals — Valpo 8-21 (Hamlet 0-3, Schaub 1-2, Stoller 1-1, Ellenson 1-4, Hales 1-3, Frederick 0-2, Schofield 4-6), UNI 8-23 (Rucker 3-4, Howell 0-2, Gunnels 0-1, Morgan 3-7, Kroeger 2-4, Finley 0-2, Gerrits 0-3). Blocks — Valpo 4 (Ellenseon 2), UNI 4 (Howell 2). Turnovers — Valpo 22 (Hamlet 5), UNI 13 (three at 3). Steals — Valpo 4 (four at 1), UNI 9 (Gerrits 3).

Officials – Grinter, McConnell, Knight. Att. – N/A.

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Sports reporter for The Courier

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