An adversity-filled season has challenged and tested the Northern Iowa women’s basketball team at every turn.
Friday, UNI passed its first postseason test.
A seven-point fourth quarter lead evaporated, but the Panthers persevered to claim a 66-63 victory over Southern Illinois in the quarterfinals of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, advancing to today’s 4:30 p.m. semifinal against second-seeded Missouri State at the TaxSlayer Center.
"Who would have through at the beginning of the year we’d have this much adversity? But, we are overcoming it. I love this team," senior Taylor Hagen said.
It was Hagen who put the Panthers in front to stay, scoring on a drive with 17 seconds remaining.
Southern Illinois’ Abby Brockmeyer had a chance to give her team the lead back, but her shot from the lane rattled off the rim twice and into the arms of UNI’s Heidi Hillyard.
She was fouled, and the junior knocked down a pair of free throws to give UNI a margin that stuck when Southern Illinois missed two final 3-point attempts.
"I thought it was a very good game, a hard-played game by both teams," Northern Iowa coach Tanya Warren said. "It was a game of runs. I’m extremely proud of my team being able to maximize runs."
Northern Iowa came from behind twice in the final minutes after a three-point play by the Salukis’ Nicole Martin left UNI in a 60-58 hole with 2:40 to play.
A pair of free throws by Karli Rucker tied the game with 1:49 to go, and following a turnover by Southern Illinois, Rucker scored on a drive to give the Panthers a 62-60 lead.
Brittney Patrick answered with a 3-pointer that with :48 remaining that put the Salukis on top one last time.
"I thought we got the stops and rebounds when we needed them down the stretch," Hagen said.
UNI also found a spark Friday in Abby Gerrits.
The junior guard who hadn’t reached double figures in 13 games scored 10 of her 17 points against the Salukis in the first quarter.
She didn’t stop there.
After keeping the Panthers within 20-17 after one quarter, Gerrits drained a 3-pointer to break a 31-31 deadlock with 2 minutes, 51 seconds remaining in the first half.
Northern Iowa helped itself with 54-percent shooting to take a 39-35 lead into the locker room at the break.
The Salukis (15-15) scored the first six points of the third quarter, but Northern Iowa limited the Salukis to three field goals in the quarter to open a 50-44 advantage.
Rucker, a sophomore from North Scott, finished with a game-high 18 points for the Panthers (20-11).
The team’s leading scorer throughout a season that has seen returning all-conference players Megan Maahs and Ellie Howell among players who have now missed a combined 60 games because of injuries, Rucker also delivered again for UNI.
"Karli has been terrific in doing what we’ve asked her to do," Warren said. "She has stepped up and met the challenges that have been placed in front of her, which is what we expected from her."
Makenzie Selvy led four Salukis in double figures with a 16-point game.