Northern Iowa women's basketball falls short in MVC Tournament title game against Illinois State

Dargan Southard
Des Moines Register
The Illinois State basketball team runs onto the court after defeating Northern Iowa in the finals of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament on Sunday in Moline, Illinois.

MOLINE, Ill. — It didn't matter how it arrived. Any type of a form would do the trick.

The Northern Iowa women's basketball team simply needed to find any victorious path to Sunday's season-changing opportunity. 

The Panthers fell just short of a season-changing NCAA Tournament bid. 

Despite constructing a six-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, No. 3 seed UNI didn't score over the game's final five minutes as No. 4 seed Illinois State slowly clawed back. The Redbirds finished the deal for a 50-48 win in the MVC Tournament title game at TaxSlayer Center in Moline, Illinois.   

"This was the biggest game," UNI's Karli Rucker said, "so it's obviously disappointing when it comes to the end and they're up. But it's not just one play in the game. We have to remember that. 

Gunning for their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2017 and their first Hoops in the Heartland title since 2011, the Panthers looked to be in good shape with a 48-42 advantage as the clock ticked under five minutes. That kind of cushion in this grueling affair felt like double its worth. 

But Illinois State wasn't finished, first landing a key three from Iowa City Regina graduate Mary Crompton. Leading scorer Juliunn Redmond scored the next four, including the eventual go-ahead layup with 1:52 remaining.

DeAnna Wilson split two free throws to give UNI the ball back, down two, with 7.3 seconds remaining. Kam Finley got a decent fadeaway look from the mid-range that fell short. Time ran out before any offensive rebound could be corralled.     

"Down the stretch," Rucker said, "instead of making the easy pass, we forced a couple in there. I forced a couple in there."  

Rucker led UNI with 16 points on 6-for-14 shooting. Emerson Green had nine points, including a big trey to give the Panthers a 44-38 edge with 8:24 left. But UNI simply ran out of offensive juice at the worst possible time. 

"Overall, I'm still so proud of our team," Green said. "We've gone through so much this season. Just coming out and playing hard to get to this point, there are only two teams in our league that get to this point — and we're one of them. That's awesome."    

The Panthers are still likely headed to the WNIT, possibly as an early-round host. It's a tough pill to swallow given how well UNI played Saturday against at-large candidate Missouri State and Friday versus Valparaiso. But the Panthers will continue to march forward with whatever games remain. 

"To still be playing at this time of year is always something to be extremely proud of," UNI coach Tanya Warren said. "This time last year, we were in the WNIT and made it to the final four. So I'm extremely proud of this team."      

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.