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Northern Iowa's Megan Maahs, left, drives inside as Milwaukee's Steph Kostowicz, right, defends in the first half of the WNIT game Thursday, March 15, 2018, in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

ST. LOUIS — University of Northern Iowa coach Tanya Warren has little doubt her women’s basketball team will continue to bring one of the Missouri Valley Conference’s stingiest defenses to the court when league play begins in January.

Warren returns four starters and had just one graduate from her main rotation within a team that once again surrendered the fewest points in league play, holding opposition to 53.2 points per game last season.

The 2017-18 Panthers, however, never quite managed to fill the void left by the graduation of one of the program’s top all-time scorers in combo guard Madison Weekly. UNI ranked in the middle of the pack with 63.8 points per game during league play and shot just 38.6 percent from the field (31.8 percent on 3s and 43.2 percent inside the arc).

“Our field goal percentage has to be better,” Warren said during the recent MVC media day. “I think we defend well enough, that is our MO, but we have to be able to shoot the basketball better.”

UNI’s coach says production starts with finding more post touches for returning first-team all-conference center Megan Maahs, who averaged a team-high 10.4 points and 9.8 rebounds per game her sophomore season. The Panthers often became dependent on 3-point shots a year ago, attempting nearly twice as many as their opposition.

“We have to be able to establish our inside game and work inside-out as opposed to outside-in,” Warren noted, as her program attempts to build on a third-place finish in league play and 19-14 overall record. “I think if we can establish that, it’ll be easier for us to rely a little bit more on the 3.”

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Warren added that it was important for frontcourt reserves Taylor Hagen and Heidi Hillyard to have their best summers entering their junior and senior campaigns, respectively. She feels both met that challenge.

Rose Simon-Ressler will be hard keep off the court because of her work ethic, UNI’s coach pointed out, while guard Nicole Kroeger’s driving ability has improved. Abby Gerrits is more aggressive and shooting well after she played 10 minutes a game coming off an ACL injury.

Additional growth should come from sophomore Karli Rucker, who is set to take over the point guard position after averaging 12.3 minutes off the bench as a true freshman. The spring signing of Elgin, Ill., point guard Alyssa Iverson has brought added depth and will allow fifth-year senior Ellie Howell to occupy a shooting guard role.

“They complement each other extremely well,” Warren said, addressing the tandem of Rucker and Iverson. “What I love about Karli, and I think Karli has made a jump this summer, is she started to be more aggressive offensively. She is very capable of shooting a basketball, and shooting it well. I think she does a good job of getting those the basketball where they can score.”

While injury kept Howell from a full summer of workouts prior to last season, she has been a valuable veteran presence this offseason.

“I’m feeling good,” said Howell, who will join Mikaela Morgan as a third-year starter. “I’m excited to be practicing and just being able to get as many reps as I can. I’m really excited for this year. Five years is a long time to be at UNI, but I’m just excited that this will be the best one yet.”

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Sports reporter for The Courier

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