CEDAR FALLS — A third-place finish in the Missouri Valley Conference was within reach for the University of Northern Iowa women’s basketball team Thursday.

The Panthers (19-10 overall, 12-5 MVC) went out and grabbed it by fighting off Bradley 61-57 at the McLeod Center.

UNI bolted to an early 12-point lead, then endured a late rally by the Braves (20-8, 10-7).

“This game all of a sudden became a very physical game, and I don’t know what it is, but this time of year, they let the teams play,” said Panthers coach Tanya Warren.

“We knew playing them a second time around that it would be a dogfight, and it was.”

UNI needed overtime to defeat Bradley on the road, 81-79, two months ago.

“We just had to find a way to win and our girls did. I am so proud of this team,” added Warren. “Every time they get down they just find a way to pick themselves back up.”

On this night, the Panther pick-up came from sophomore forward Bre Gunnels, who was shut out in the first half, but hit a pair of big 3s to swing momentum to UNI in the second half.

“I don’t know what it was between the first and second half, but coach just told me I had to get it together,” said Gunnels. “I don’t know if I just wasn’t looking for a chance to score or what, but I did hit two shots and that kind of got our momentum changed a bit.”

While Gunnels and the rest of the offense sputtered in the first half, sophomore guard Karli Rucker kept the Panthers in the lead with nine points early and finished with a game-high 15 overall.

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“We came into the game knowing it would be a tough one and we needed to find the open shots,” said Rucker. “We knew we needed to score more points than what we had because they came back from being down by 17 at their place and took it to overtime. They really came back again tonight, but we were able to hold them off and punch back in the end.”

Bradley took its only lead at 57-56 in the closing seconds, but it lasted just 15 seconds as Mikaela Morgan popped in a short jumper to put UNI back up 58-57, then sank a pair of free throws for a 60-57 edge with eight seconds left.

“I know this team is not perfect,” added Warren. “But they work hard and they are a great young group. I am just so proud of the way they fight.”

UNI 61, Bradley 57

BRADLEY (20-8, 10-7) — Gabi Haack 5 3-4 15, Chelsea Brackmann 5 0-0 10, Tatum Koenig 3 2-2 11, Shunseere Kent 0 0-0 0, Emily Marsh 0 0-0 0, Vanessa Markert 3 4-5 10, Lasha Petree 0 2-2 2, Nyjah White 2 0-0 4, Ellie Spelhaug 1 2-2 5. Totals 19 13-15 57.

NORTHERN IOWA (19-10, 12-5) — Karli Rucker 5 2-2 15, Mikaela Morgan 4 4-4 12, Ellie Howell 0 0-0 0, Heidi Hillyard 0 0-0 0, Bre Gunnels 2 2-4 8, Cynthia Wolf 2 0-0 6, Taylor Hagen 5 1-2 11, Alyssa Iverson 0 0-0 0, Abby Gerrits 0 0-0 0, Nicole Kroeger 2 0-0 5, Rose Simon-Ressler 2 0-0 4. Totals 22 9-12 61.

Bradley 11 16 11 19 — 57

N. Iowa 22 12 10 17 — 61

3-point goals — Bradley 6 (Koenig 3, Haack 2, Spelhaug), UNI 8 (Rucker 3, Gunnels 2, Wolf 2, Kroeger). Rebounds — Bradley 38 (Brackmann 10), UNI 39 (Hagen 10). Assists — Bradley 7 (Haack 4), UNI 9 (Rucker 4). Total fouls — Bradley 19, UNI 18. Fouled out — none Brackmann (Bradley).

Officials — Brost, Clayton, Dukes. Att — 1,652.

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