CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa women’s basketball coach Tanya Warren didn’t hide her excitement during Thursday’s media day at McLeod Center.
The 14th-year Panthers coach has a healthy group of returning upperclassmen and a class of six freshmen she says, “on paper is the best class that we’ve signed.”
Picked third in the Missouri Valley Conference’s preseason poll, UNI will once again be led by guard Karli Rucker and forward Megan Maahs.
Rucker, a preseason all-conference honoree, enters her senior season on track to finish in the top 10 of the program’s all-time scoring and assist lists.
“(I’ve worked) on one-on-one moves and being able to come off a screen and being ready to score,” Rucker said. “I’m just excited to focus on how a team is going to play me and then just being able to make in-game adjustments better than I did last year.”
Maahs — who Warren admitted wasn’t healthy last season coming off of ACL surgery — is back to full health and poised to get back to shouldering a large workload in the frontcourt.
“A lot of people lose their (footwork) when they tear their ACL. They lose some (vertical), but I took a lot of pride in focusing on getting stronger,” Maahs said. “Along with just growing in my leadership role on this team with six incoming freshmen. I just want to be that person they look up to.”
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Despite her excitement for her freshman class, Warren wasn’t ready to name names or reveal how she anticipates minutes being doled out once the season arrives.
“It’s going to be finding the right combination of experience and youth out on the floor and just everybody not getting caught up in minutes played, who’s starting, or points being scored,” Warren said. “But understanding everybody is valued and everybody has an opportunity to make a difference.”
Warren has preached versatility and defense throughout her time at UNI and this year’s roster is the deepest, on paper, she’s ever had. Headed into what she described as another tough non-conference schedule, she’s still testing out a variety of lineup combinations.
“We’ve been able to mix and match and still create that competitiveness that you like to see as a coaching staff,” Warren said. “Karli is doing a terrific job in practice. She is as good as I’ve seen her play right now. We are asking (Bre Gunnels) to be more aggressive offensively. We really feel she has a unique set of skills. Megan is healthy. Megan is strong. Megan is lean and playing extremely, extremely well.”
UNI has yet to release its non-conference schedule, however Warren anticipates it being unveiled next week. The Panthers are scheduled to open MVC play on Dec. 31 at Illinois State.