MOLINE, Ill – It was a hard-fought battle for the UNI women’s basketball team to make it onto the Hoops in the Heartland Championship game after beating the Missouri State Lady Bears 63-57.
It was a physical defensive battle through 40 minutes in the semifinal game between the Panthers and the Lady Bears on Saturday afternoon. Strong shooting in the fourth quarter and runs in the second half helped propel UNI to a win over Missouri State at the TaxSlayer Center. The Panthers had four players in double-digits and led the game in blocks with five deflects.
“It was a terrific win. It was a grind and I”m so proud of how this team battled from start to finish. But it was just a terrific team win,” said Head Coach Tanya Warren after the game. “I thought we were able to keep it close which is what you need to do. I think we got good minutes from our bench. … We went to mixing up our defenses and I think that kind of kept them off balance a little bit. And wherever they would adjust we would switch back. I thought our kids did a nice job of switching up defenses and trying to find ways to find stops when we needed them.”
It would be a back and forth game to start the second semifinal match-up of the day. The Panthers would get the first run of the afternoon with a brief four-point run four minutes into the first quarter. The Lady Bears would answer right back with a run of their own, grabbing five points in just under two minutes. But UNI would match the Missouri State run with six straight points. The final basket of the quarter would be a Lady Bears free throw with 45 seconds left to give UNI a sight three-point lead.
The Panthers would have another fast start in the second as senior guard Karli Rucker made a driving layup to put UNI up by five in the first 30 seconds. But Missouri State would heat up quickly as they poured in 12 points in two minutes. Senior forward Bre Gunnels would break the scoring drought with a quick fast-break layup with 6:20 left in the half. Rucker would add two more before it returned to a back and forth game. The teams traded shots for the next four minutes until Gunnels went to the line and made two to get the Panther deficit down to a basket. But the Lady Bears would make a last-second three-point jump shot to go up 33-28 into halftime.
Missouri State would get the first basket of the second half, as well as guard Abi Jackson, made a quick jump shot. But the Panthers would quickly answer with Rucker going into the paint for a layup. The two traded shots until UNI went on a seven-point run over four minutes. The Panthers also held the Lady Bears scoreless for over four and a half minutes until Jackson tied it back up in the second half of the quarter. Neither team would score for the next minute and 50 seconds until guard Kam Finley drew a foul and sunk both shots at the charity stripe to have UNI back on top by two. Jackson would again tie the game up for Missouri State and spur a six-point run to end the third. The Panthers would go into the final frame of the game trailing by just four.
UNI would explode for a 14-0 run to start the fourth quarter. The six-minute run was highlighted by a fast break three-pointer for Finley and a contested and-one for forward Grace Boffeli. The extended run gave the Panthers their best lead of the game at 10 points with just over five minutes left. But the Lady Bears wouldn’t go down without a fight as they quickly came back, scoring 10 in three minutes and 40 seconds to tie it back up. Finley would break the tie for the final time at the line for UNI, putting them back up by two. Finley would have another chance at the line along with Boffeli and Gunnels. Gunnels two free throws would be the last of the game, sealing the win for UNI 63-57.
The Panthers would lead in all shooting categories on the day, making 22-49 (44.9%) from the floor, 3-11 (27.3%) from three-point range, and 16-19 (84.2%) from the free-throw line. UNI would also have more blocks than Missouri State, stopping five shots between forwards Bre Gunnels and Grace Boffeli. The Panthers would grab 30 rebounds, have 6 steals, and 11 helpers.
Guard Karli Rucker paced UNI in scoring with 18 points while Grace Boffeli (14), Bre Gunnels (14), and Kam Finley (13) all had double-digit games. Boffeli and Gunnels also led the team in rebounds with 9 and 8 boards respectively. Rucker grabbed a team-high five assists while Gunnels had three steals.
The third-seeded Panthers will face the fourth-seeded Illinois State Redbirds in the Hoops in the Heartland Championship game on Sunday afternoon. UNI won both regular-season matchups with the Redbirds and looks to do the same to capture the championship. Tipoff on March 13 is set for 1 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPNU.