ST. LOUIS — Megan Maahs isn’t taking anything for granted.
Northern Iowa’s all-conference center experienced the longest stretch of time away from basketball in her career after an ACL injury forced her to opt for a medical redshirt eight games into last season.
“I learned a lot about myself through that process and just really dove into the rehab and therapy,” Maahs said during Tuesday’s Missouri Valley Conference media day. “Something I learned while I was away is you just never know when your last time could be. I’m just enjoying each moment that we get together.”
Maahs joins all-conference combo guard Karli Rucker, who averaged 15 points per game, as talented leaders within a Panther team coming off a 20-13 season in which they were defeated by eventual Sweet 16 qualifier Missouri State in the semifinal round of the MVC tournament.
“They have the potential to be two of the best to come out of our program,” UNI head coach Tanya Warren said. “Their ability to work with each other, both offensively and defensively, we hope causes a lot of havoc for our opponents.”
Versatile is one word that could be used to describe this year’s Panthers.
“We have great shooters, great post players that can step out and shoot the ball,” Maahs said. “It just really opens up the lane area. I’m excited to see what that’s going to look like for us.”
Sophomore Cynthia Wolf and true freshman Sara McCullough of Ankeny are among the players who have the ability to shoot on the perimeter from the forward position. They could complement Maahs in two-post sets.
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Warren trusts sophomore Kam Finley to take over the point guard position at times, allowing Rucker to find shots. Finley had an impressive offseason after blood clots in her arm limited her to 16 games as a freshman and threatened to end her career.
“Anytime you love something and it’s taken away, I think you come back with a new perspective, a new appreciation,” Warren said. “I think she (Finley) has had a tremendous summer and has done a really good job of getting herself back in a rhythm.”
Starter Bre Gunnels also returns alongside reserves Abby Gerrits, Nicole Kroeger, Rose Simon-Ressler and Heidi Hillyard as players who have seen plenty of court time over the past couple seasons. Warren views Hillyard, a senior forward, as an x-factor to her team’s success.
“We need a big year, a consistent year from Heidi Hillyard for this team to do what we think we’re capable of,” Warren said. “One of the reasons I fell in love with Heidi is her motor. She’s got to have that consistent motor, a lot like Rose (Simon-Ressler). Her ability to get extra possessions is the thing she has to bring for this team.”
Redshirt freshman Kiana Barney, graduate transfer guard Kristina Cavey and true freshmen Cailyn Morgan and Kaitlyn Winston are all part of the mix for this season’s Panthers.
“I think I got a glimpse of what we could be as a whole,” Rucker said, addressing last season. “Coming into this year, especially getting Megan back, I think we just really have a lot to build off.
“With a couple big injuries last year it was tough all the way around, but we saw that we could fight as a team through that adversity. I think that made us stronger.”