Panthers stay in the title hunt after road split



Grace Boffeli (42) continued her strong play, pitching in double-doubles in both of UNI’s games over the weekend.

DREW HILL, Opinion Columnist

The UNI women’s basketball team finished their final regular season road trip before the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Tournament on Saturday, Feb. 25. They first traveled to Nashville, Tenn., to face the Belmont Bruins on Thursday, Feb. 23, before going to Murray, Ky., to face the Murray State Racers. After dropping a tight matchup against the Bruins, 82-77, UNI dominated the Racers, 76-48.

UNI came into the matchup with Belmont 18-7 overall and 13-3 in conference play. Belmont came in 17-10 overall and 13-3 in the conference as well. They were also riding a 10-game win streak. UNI looked to split the season series after Belmont won 67-61 in the McLeod Center on Jan. 8. The winner of this game would solidify their place atop the MVC standings.

Both teams started out hot early in the first quarter. The score was tied at 11 after four minutes of play, but Belmont started to build a lead towards the end of the quarter. Belmont eventually stretched their lead to eight at 27-19 before finishing the quarter up 29-22. The Panther defense stifled the Bruins for the first half of the second quarter, holding them to three points as UNI pulled within two at 32-30. The final three minutes saw a flurry of scoring from both teams as Belmont remained ahead 42-39 at the half.

In the third quarter, Belmont again started to pull away, eventually building a 12-point lead at 56-44. UNI kept battling, though, and cut the lead in half by the end of the third, getting within six at 62-56. After going back and forth for the opening part of the fourth quarter, it looked like Belmont had finally seized control with an eight-point lead at 71-63. However, that was the largest the lead would be for the rest of the game, as UNI used a 9-2 run to get within one at 73-72. A big 3-pointer extended the Bruin lead back to four, and UNI could not quite come all the way back, as Belmont closed out with an 82-77 win.

UNI was led in scoring and rebounding by Grace Boffeli, who finished with a 19-point, 11-rebound double-double. Maya McDermott added 16 points, and Cynthia Wolf nearly added a double-double of her own with 14 points and nine rebounds. The other two Panthers to score in double figures were Cailyn Morgan with 12 and Emerson Green with 11.

Murray State came into the matchup with UNI 13-13 overall and 6-11 in conference. They had won two of their last four following a seven-game losing streak. UNI won the first matchup with the Racers 81-54 in the McLeod Center on Jan. 6.

Early in the first quarter, both teams struggled to score. With the score tied at 10 with two-and-a-half minutes to go in the first quarter, Wolf was injured going for a layup and was unable to play for the rest of the game. UNI managed to close the quarter up 14-10. After battling back and forth early in the second quarter, UNI pulled ahead by 10 at 24-14 after back-to-back threes. The Racers responded with an 8-0 run to cut the lead to two at 24-22. UNI ended up going into halftime with a 28-24 lead.

The game seemed like it might come down to the wire, but midway through the third quarter, UNI ripped off a 21-3 run that turned a two-point lead at 31-29 into a 20-point lead at 52-32. The third ended with UNI in full control with a 54-37 lead. The fourth quarter saw UNI continue to dominate as they eventually won 76-48.

Boffeli finished with another double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds. McDermott posted 13 points and three assists. Ryley Goebel turned in a strong defensive performance, posting four blocks and a steal to go along with nine points.

After the full weekend of results, Illinois State and Belmont were tied atop the MVC at 15-3, with UNI and Missouri State just behind at 14-4. UNI still has a chance to win the regular season title outright if they win their final two home games and Illinois State and Belmont lose both of their games. If either of those teams win one of their two remaining games, UNI can still win a share of the regular season title. Even if UNI doesn’t grab a share of the conference title, they will still likely receive a top four seed in the MVC tournament, considering they have a two-game lead on fifth-place Drake with two games remaining for each team. UNI also swept Drake, giving the Panthers a potential tiebreaker. If UNI were to win the conference tournament, they would make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017. UNI’s last two regular season games are in the McLeod Center against Southern Illinois on Thursday, March 2, and Missouri State on Saturday, March 4.