The Northern Iowa women’s basketball team finished strong last weekend with a pair of road victories at Southern Illinois.
In fact, those wins gave the Panthers a four-game win streak.
Associate head coach Brad Nelson said Monday that the Panthers are playing some of their best basketball at the right time as UNI gets set to open Missouri Valley Conference tournament play Friday.
The fourth-seeded Panthers (14-11) will face No. 5-seed Bradley (14-11) at the TaxSlayer Center in Moline, Ill., at 2 p.m.
“Team effort,” Nelson said of the wins at Southern Illinois. “To go on the road and find a way to get two big wins, the first one was huge because it assured us we would have a bye on the first day.
“It builds lots of confidence and momentum because we have a huge challenge with Bradley.”
The Braves were picked to finish second in the preseason and finished fifth.
The two teams split games on Feb. 12-13. The Panthers won the opener, 73-72, on Kam Finley’s last-second 3-pointer, and the Braves took the second game, 78-63.
Bradley had a pair of players named to the all-MVC first team Wednesday, guards Gabi Haack and Lasha Petree.
Haack, standing 5-foot-10, averaged 16 points and seven rebounds a game and led the league in made 3-point goals. Petree, a 6-footer, led the Valley in scoring (17.9 points per game) and she averaged 2.2 blocks per game.
West Branch native Tatum Koenig has also been a thorn in UNI’s side, averaging nine points a game in her career against the Panthers. The junior in eight games against teams from her home state, either Drake or UNI, has averaged 11.4 points per game while making 19 of 33 field goal attempts.
“They have as good of starting five as there is in the league,” Nelson said. “A huge challenge.”
In those first two games, UNI was without freshman guard Emerson Green, who at 5-foot-11, will be critical against the Braves frontcourt that rotates in three players whom are 5-foot-10 or taller.
“I think she is a huge factor,” Nelson said. “She is a really important kid against Bradley because of her size. Bradley has such great length in their backcourt. Every kid we have in our rotation is a huge piece, but we are glad to have her back.”
Finley led UNI with 25 points in the Panthers win over Bradley on Feb. 12, while the Panthers were never in the rematch as the Braves jumped out to a 16-7 lead after one quarter and led 42-21 at halftime.
Karli Rucker led UNI with 19 in that game.
“We are just so thankful after what happened a year ago being on the floor when the tournament was called and to get to play in the Hoops in the Heartland,” Nelson said. “The opportunity is 40 minutes and who can survive, advance and find a way to get a chance to play on Saturday.”