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MOLINE, Ill. – Elle Ruffridge appeared to stand taller than her listed 5-foot-3 height throughout a high school career at Pocahontas Area where she set Iowa’s five-player career records for points, 3-pointers and assists.

Through her first two seasons of college basketball at Missouri State, the sophomore has largely managed to get lost in the crowd. Elusiveness became a trait the Bears were able to exploit Saturday in the semifinal round of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.

Ruffridge found gaps in the University of Northern Iowa’s zone, knocking down her collegiate career-high four 3-pointers in the first half of a new single-game high 14-point effort off the bench. That spark was complemented by senior point guard Danielle Gitzen’s career-best 22-point effort during Missouri State’s 89-64 blowout of UNI in front of a TaxSlayer Center crowd of 2,254.

“At some point this was going to happen, but she has had some frustrated times in her career,” MSU coach Kellie Harper said, after Ruffridge helped the Bears reach the championship game for the first time since 2016. “I knew this was her. I could not be more thrilled.”

Added Ruffridge, “It felt great. What a time to do it? Right. Credit to all my teammates who found me. One of my big roles on this team is to shoot the ball, and I did just that.

“It’s very special. A lot of people know my name here. We’re not in the state of Iowa (on the Illinois side of the Quad Cities), but there are a lot of Iowa people here.”

UNI (20-12) saw its program-record string of three consecutive trips to this tournament’s championship game come to end after surrendering a school-record 35 points in the second quarter. The Bears (22-9) knocked down 7 of 10 attempts from distance in the first half and scored on 15 of 19 second-quarter possessions.

Entering this game, UNI coach Tanya Warren was more concerned with her team’s interior defense. MSU made just 5 of 22 3-point attempts during its two-game regular season sweep.

Still, too many of UNI’s scouting report details were missed. The Panthers went under screens against shooters at times, and often failed to pick up Ruffridge on the weak side after switching to a second-quarter zone.

UNI was also out-rebounded 49-25 with Missouri State’s Jasmine Franklin grabbing 14 boards.

“They hit some tough shots and they hit some wide open shots, but our game plan was to try and keep them out of the paint,” Warren said after MSU shot 11 of 18 from distance. “We made a lot of mental mistakes. We’re usually pretty locked in on scouting report details.”

Despite trailing by as many as 16 points in the first half, UNI still showed some fight.

Sophomore point guard Karli Rucker scored off a pair of early drives, and the defensive intensity picked up during an 11-2 run in which the Panthers cut their deficit to six on Nicole Kroeger’s 3-pointer just over 3 minutes into the third quarter.

Kroeger then had Ruffridge posted up for a layup that would have cut the deficit to four, but that opportunity missed. A Panther defender went under a screen on the ensuing possession, and Gitzen took advantage with her fourth 3-pointer in four attempts for a crucial seven-point swing.

Missouri State later hit UNI with a 13-0 knockout run that extended into the fourth quarter.

“We came out of the locker room together saying we were going to win this game, and they just kept hitting shots,” UNI senior center Taylor Hagen said. “It just didn’t fall our way.”

Rucker was UNI’s lone consistent source of offense with 21 points on 9 of 14 shooting. Her teammates finished a combined 13 of 44 from the field.

UNI will now look forward to another postseason opportunity. The Panthers will likely finish with a RPI ranking in the top 90 and are a virtual lock to secure a third WNIT bid in four years.

“Right now everyone is trying to play their best basketball,” Rucker said. “We’re going to have to come out ready to fight on the offensive and defensive end.”

With Rucker taking a major step forward during her first season as a starting point guard, UNI’s future remains bright.

“She’s been terrific,” Warren said. “We ask her to do a lot, and she has embraced that and handled herself beautifully. If we can get healthy and get some of our pieces back, we’re extremely excited about our future.”

MSU 89, UNI 64

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

Gunnels 22 0-3 3-6 2 4 2 3

Hagen 17 3-6 2-2 6 1 4 8

Rucker 32 9-14 0-0 2 1 0 21

Kroeger 20 1-7 0-0 0 1 0 3

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Morgan 29 1-6 0-0 2 1 1 2

Iverson 8 1-3 1-2 1 1 1 4

Simon-Ressler 8 1-2 0-0 2 1 2 2

Wolf 21 2-4 3-4 2 0 1 9

Hillyard 19 2-6 0-0 2 1 2 5

Gerrits 24 2-7 2-2 2 1 1 7

Team 4

Totals 200 22-58 11-16 25 12 14 64

Missouri St. Mn FG-A FT-A Rb As PF TP

Hipp 19 2-3 2-4 4 2 2 6

Franklin 22 3-4 2-4 14 1 2 8

Gitzen 24 8-12 2-2 4 4 2 22

Calip 24 1-5 6-6 5 1 2 8

Willard 24 5-14 0-0 1 0 1 11

Ruffridge 21 5-8 0-0 1 2 2 14

Schultz 4 0-1 0-0 2 0 1 0

Wilson 15 4-7 0-1 1 1 4 9

Bhinhar 11 1-3 0-0 2 3 0 2

Ellis 2 1-1 0-0 0 0 0 3

Manning 18 1-4 0-0 2 1 1 2

Gartner 16 2-4 0-0 6 0 1 4

Team 7

Totals 200 33-66 12-17 49 15 18 89

Northern Iowa 11 19 19 15 — 64

Missouri St. 10 35 19 25 — 89

3-point goals—UNI 9-25 (Gunnels 0-1, Rucker 3-4, Kroeger 1-4, Morgan 0-4, Iverson 1-3, Simon-Ressler 0-1, Wolf 2-4, Hillyard 1-2, Gerrits 1-2), MSU 11-18 (Gitzen 4-5, Willard 1-3, Ruffridge 4-6, Wilson 1-2, Ellis 1-1, Manning 0-1). Blocks—UNI 2 (Gunnels, Wolf), MSU 2 (Franklin, Gartner). Turnovers—UNI 8 (three at 2), MSU 11 (four at 2). Steals—UNI 6 (Gunnels, Morgan 2), MSU 8 (eight at 1).

Officials – Napier, Knight, Daley. Att. – 2,254.

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Sports reporter for The Courier

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