Panthers get set for 2022 Hoops in the Heartland

The UNI women’s basketball team finished the 2021-22 season in third place in the Missouri Valley Conference and will now look ahead to the conference tournament. or “Hoops in the Heartland,” which will take place at the Taxslayer Center in Moline, Ill. The Panthers will play on Friday in the first round against Valparaiso, with tip-off scheduled for 8:30 p.m.

DAVID WARRINGTON

Another women’s basketball regular season has come and gone, and after finishing the season on a four game winning streak, the UNI Panthers are looking ahead to the 2022 Missouri Valley Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament, otherwise known as “Hoops in the Heartland.” Games will take place at the TaxSlayer Center in Moline, Ill., with the first round taking place on Thursday, and the championship being held on Sunday. After exiting earlier than anticipated last season, losing to Bradley in the quarterfinals, the Panthers will look to make a deeper run this season.

The Panthers finished third in the MVC, therefore receiving the three seed in the tournament. This season’s regular season conference race was very close, with the difference between the regular season champions, Southern Illinois, and fourth place Illinois State being only three games. This should make for a very competitive tournament.

“I couldn’t be more excited. You talk about wide open, it’s extremely wide open,” said head coach Tanya Warren. “This league has been very, very good from the start to the finish, and it is wide open. As coaches, and as players, you’re excited about that.”

Because they are in the top six, UNI has received a first-round bye and will not play until the quarterfinals on Friday. Their opponent will be the Valparaiso Beacons, the six-seed in the tournament, with that game scheduled for an 8:30 p.m. tipoff on ESPN+. The Panthers met the Beacons twice in the regular season, with both games having very different results. Playing on the road in the conference opener, Valparaiso took down UNI, 60-58, but back in the McLeod Center the Panthers ran away with the game, 68-38.

If UNI can get the quarterfinal win, they will, in all likelihood, have a matchup with the second-seeded Missouri State Lady Bears in the semifinals. This is another team that UNI split with in the regular season, getting a 74-65 victory at home, but losing the road matchup, 66-57. If Missouri State were to be upset before reaching the semifinals, the other potential opponents would be Drake, the seven-seed, or Bradley, the 10-seed. The Panthers were dominant against Bradley this season, winning both meetings by at least 20 points. However, Drake has been something of a thorn in the Panthers’ side, winning both matchups this year despite UNI being the better team on paper.

The top seeds on the other side of the bracket include the one-seed, Southern Illinois, and the four-seed, Illinois State. UNI swept Illinois State in the regular season, while splitting the two matchups with Southern Illinois.

Like most seasons, the path through Hoops in the Heartland will be a difficult one, and whoever comes out victorious on the other side, claiming the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, will certainly have earned it. UNI comes into the tournament as winners of four in a row. If they can make it seven in a row, they will be dancing on the biggest stage NCAA women’s basketball has to offer.