By Austin Cannon
In a contest with large implications on seeding in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, the Northern Iowa Panthers outlasted the Drake Bulldogs 79-73 in a thriller at the Knapp Center on Sunday.
The two teams entered Sunday tied for first in The Valley. UNI (11-7, 6-1) now occupies the top spot alone while the Bulldogs (12-6, 5-2), who saw their five-game winning streak snapped, will have to wait until Feb. 19 for a rematch in Cedar Falls.
The meeting of the top two teams lived up to its billing with dramatic final moments. Drake took a one-point lead with 1:38 to go off a Sara Rhine 15-footer, giving the Bulldogs their first lead since 23-22 early in the second quarter.
But UNI answered immediately. Sharnae Lamer, a Des Moines East High School graduate, found Amber Sorenson on the left wing. The senior netted the 3-pointer and the Panthers were up 73-71 with 1:12 remaining.
“Anytime anyone hits a three at the end of the game, that’s not an ideal situation, but at the same time we didn’t lose hope that we could come back,” Rhine said.
Drake had a chance to tie, but Lizzy Wendell turned the ball over on a mishandled exchange. It went back to UNI, and Lamar dribbled between the circles as the clocked ticked under a minute. With fewer than 10 seconds on the shot clock, she moved to the right and passed to Sorenson on an open cut to the basket. She made the uncontested layup with 28.3 seconds to go.
That proved to be the dagger. The two-possession lead was too much for the Bulldogs to overcome as the Panthers hit enough free throws in the final seconds to prevail.
It could’ve been worse for the Bulldogs, who finished with only seven assists and made only 4 of 16 3-pointers. The game was on the fringe of becoming a blowout when the Panthers took a double-digit lead in the third quarter, up by as many as 14.
Drake, however, clawed its way back into the game late in the fourth quarter. The Panthers took a 70-62 lead after Jen Keitel hit a short jumper with 5:46 left. It was after that shot that the Bulldogs were finally able to return to their normal fast-paced style that had eluded them all game.
It started with a Caitlin Ingle drive and layup. After Lamar missed a jumper, Ingle found Rhine for a transition layup. UNI missed two layups on its next trip down the floor and, again, Ingle found Rhine going the other way. With 3:35 left, Drake was only down 70-68.
Wendell hit one free throw to close the gap to one point with 2:18 remaining. After UNI missed its seventh shot in a row, Rhine knocked down her jumper from the right elbow to give Drake a 71-70 lead and send the Knapp Center into a frenzy.
The racket was quickly quieted when Sorenson immediately responded with her 3-pointer.
“We made a run, just needed to sustain it a little bit more,” Baranczyk said.
Until the fourth quarter, Drake wasn’t able to get into their customary up-tempo offense and saw almost no opportunities in transition. The Bulldogs finished with only six fast-break points. Baranczyk wants her offense to be fast-paced in its half-court sets too, but she thought it slowed in the second and third quarters on Sunday, playing to UNI’s strength.
“It was not in our favor,” she said. “We needed to up the tempo on both ends of the floor.”
Turnovers were again an issue; Drake notched 17 on Sunday, which resulted in 23 UNI points. In the past three games, the Bulldogs have turned the ball over 60 times.
“It’s the hesitation ones that we’ve got to get better … when we’re not decisive enough on our dribble handoffs, we’re not decisive on our passes, and we start to question ourselves,” Baranczyk said.
Drake was able to find some success in the halfcourt, though. Ingle made her first five shots, all in or near the lane off the dribble, and Rhine turned in her best game of the season, scoring 22 points and collecting a career-high 15 rebounds against the taller UNI defenders.
“You need to be confident. You can’t just go straight up, you have to use your body in order to get around them,” Rhine said.
UNI coach Tanya Warren said postgame that her team’s best defense was a potent offense, and that was biggest problem for Drake. Five Panthers scored in double digits, and as a team they shot 50 percent from three-point land, led by Madison Weekly. She made six threes, two more than the entire Drake team.
The third-leading scorer in the conference, she finished with 25 points to lead all scorers, making a pair of 24-footers from the wing. With four other players on the floor who were also threats to score, the Bulldogs couldn’t stray from their assignments in their zone defense. That gave Weekly open looks.
“What makes her so lethal is that everyone can step up at 25 feet and shoot it,” Baranczyk said. “When you have a lot of people that can shoot it and you have a Jen Keitel inside, you’re a hard team to defend … they’re a very well-balanced team.”
Sorenson finished with 12 points for UNI, and Stephanie Davison had 15 (13 in the first quarter). Lamar dished 11 assists. Ingle finished with 18 points for Drake.
Drake now sits in a tie for second in the MVC with Missouri State and Loyola. A matchup in Chicago with the Ramblers looms next Sunday. Before then, Drake will play at Bradley on Friday. Now a game back, the Bulldogs will have to get back into the win column to keep pace.
“We need to focus on moving forward and staying together as a team,” Rhine said.