CEDAR FALLS — After a 20-13 season that ended in the first round of the WNIT last year, Northern Iowa women’s basketball coach Tanya Warren is preaching progression, not perfection to her team.
Picked third in the Missouri Valley Conference’s preseason poll, the Panthers are led by returning top-scorer Karli Rucker (15.0 ppg) who was named to the All-MVC preseason team.
“Karli has had another really good summer,” Warren said at Monday’s media day. “You know what makes Karli really special is her ability to shoot the 3 with efficiency, her mid-range game and then her floater. We challenged her to be more vocal, more of a vocal leader of this team, and she has done a tremendous job of that for us.”
While UNI has added five newcomers — four freshmen and one graduate transfer — the biggest storyline is the return of forward Megan Maahs. Maahs tore her ACL eight games into last season after providing near double-double production at 10.4 points and 9.8 rebounds per game in her last full season. Now, with Maahs back healthy, Warren is preaching patience with the junior forward.
“The biggest thing that everyone needs to understand, from the media to the fans, it is going to take time. She is not going to be the player she was prior to the injury,” Warren said. “But she is doing well. If we can get Megan close to herself by conference play we’re in good shape.”
Warren did describe Monday how this year’s offense is built to play inside-out. Heidi Hillyard returns as the next most experienced forward, however Rose Simon-Ressler — who Warren pointed out with Rucker and Maahs as the team’s leaders — has successfully played as an undersized forward in her career.
“Rose Simon-Ressler is the definition of grit, toughness, work and determination,” Warren said. “She is always going to find a way to get us extra possessions just in how hard she works.”
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Sophomore Cam Finley will back up Rucker at point guard after missing last season due to injury. Warren said Finley is the Panthers’ most improved player after the offseason.
The 12th-year coach also pointed out that defensively her team is not where it was a year ago at this time largely due to the loss of defensive stoppers Mikaela Morgan and Ellie Howell to graduation.
“We’re really excited about the versatility of this team. The different lineups we can put out on the floor,” Warren said. “And what we’re telling our young women — we have seven to eight kids that could start for us — it’s not about who’s starting it’s about being able to go to your bench and not be a dropoff and really buying into their roles.”
UNI opens its season Wednesday, Nov. 6 at home against North Dakota State.