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CEDAR FALLS — University of Northern Iowa women’s basketball coach Tanya Warren has learned to walk the line between pushing a team hard while also allowing them to enjoy the week of postseason preparation.

Seniors captains get to open practice with their favorite drills, and there was music blaring during Wednesday’s workout. A cycle of passes leading to 18 layups in two minutes is the drill Mikaela Morgan chose.

The University of Northern Iowa senior will be making her fourth postseason appearance at 6:30 p.m. Friday when the Panthers open WNIT play on the elevated court inside Minnesota’s Williams Arena.

“Not every team gets the opportunity to play in the postseason so it’s a real great chance to throw on the jersey one more time or more,” Morgan said. “It’s super fun, especially playing a Big Ten team and having an opportunity on a big stage. … It’s going to be a battle. They’re bigger than us, so we’re going to have to come out ready to battle and fight.”

Adding to the experience, Warren noted, is the fact that her teams over the years have genuinely seemed to enjoy being around each other and don’t want their season to end.

“You want to still get what you need to get out of practice, but it’s such a long season you want to make sure, too, that they’re having fun and they also understand the importance of how much of an honor it is to still be playing,” Warren said.

Since coaching her program to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 2010, postseason play has become a standard Warren’s teams have met all but one season. UNI secured the program’s first at-large NCAA berth in 2017, and the Panthers reached the WNIT in four of the last five seasons.

“When we took over our goal was to build a program, not just a team,” Warren said. “ When you look at the consistency in which this team has been successful, just to have that respect nationally, it means a lot. A lot of that credit goes to the past and current players as well as staff.”

Morgan has been perhaps one of the unsung difference-makers within UNI’s teams over the past four years. She’s a defensive stopper who has put together her most efficient season of offense. Often a threat from the perimeter, Morgan is shooting nearly 10 percent better from the field and 82.2 percent from the free throw line while averaging 8.9 points a game.

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“She does a lot of the little things well, especially on the defensive end,” Warren said of Morgan, who consistently holds the opposition’s top scorer below her average. “She brings great energy, great leadership. She really understands the game and has taken on more of an offensive responsibility.”

UNI’s coach added that Morgan’s impact as a leader has been a night and day difference this season. When center Megan Maahs went down with an ACL injury, Morgan was the first to rally the team and assure them that they can handle those types of situations. Her leadership continued to surface after veterans Rose Simon-Ressler and Ellie Howell suffered injuries of their own.

“Adversity takes an entire team, and this team has gone through a lot this year,” Morgan said. “The simple smack on the butt, high fives, all that stuff is really important. It keeps positivity throughout the team.”

Minnesota (20-10) will present UNI with a tough challenge. First-year head coach Lindsay Whalen – a former Golden Gopher All-American, WNBA champion and Olympic gold medalist – has brought energy and excitement to the program.

The Golden Gophers won their first 12 games before falling into a lull of seven losses over the next eight. They recovered by winning seven of their final nine regular-season league games, including victories over NCAA Tournament qualifiers Michigan State, Indiana and Rutgers.

Big Ten first-team all-conference and all-defense senior guard Kenisha Bell leads Minnesota with 18.8 points, 4.2 assists and 2.0 steals per game while also averaging 5.9 rebounds. Sophomore Destiny Pitts is a proficient 3-point shooter averaging 24.1 points over the past seven games.

For a UNI team that struggled down the stretch during a loss to Illinois State in its home finale before giving up 89 points to eventual champion Missouri State in the semifinals of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, this marks another chance for growth.

“Just go out and play our game,” said sophomore Karli Rucker, who is averaging a team-high 14.7 points with 4.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists in her first year as a starting point guard.

“I think the last couple games, offensively or defensively, we haven’t been complete. If we can go out and play a complete game on both sides, I think that will be good for us.”

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Sports reporter for The Courier

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