The UNI women's basketball team entered the 2011-12 season having established itself as one of the premier teams in the Missouri Valley Conference and one of the top mid-major programs in the nation over the past two years. Coming off back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, UNI endured the ups and downs that are sure to come during a five-month season, but the Panthers emerged with one clear closing statement: This program is here to stay.
UNI finished the season with 19 wins, marking its third straight season with 17 or more wins for only the second time in program history. The Panthers' 63 wins since the start of the 2009-10 season are the school's most over a span of three seasons. The team also racked up the first postseason victories in UNI history, winning three games to advance to the finals of the Women's Basketball Invitational (WBI).
That kind of success doesn't come around without student-athletes who take pride in building a program and representing their university. More times than not, leadership seems to come from experience, from time served, and from being through the battles, the struggles, and the adversity and still coming back for more. The Panthers' three seniors - K.K. Armstrong, Rachel Madrigal and Katelin Oney - fit the bill perfectly.
Armstrong and Madrigal pulled on the UNI jersey and stepped onto the floor more times than any other women in the school's history. Oney connected for more three-pointers than all but four Panthers in the history of the program. Each of the three will likely be remembered for a little bit more than their statistical achievements, though.
Armstrong was the kind of player that required UNI officials to have medical staff on location for all home games - with a stretcher handy - because of how many times she hit the floor. Of course, with her toughness, the stretcher was never needed.
Madrigal was the kind of player who would smile politely and shake your hand pregame, and then ask if she could please be excused to place your shot attempt in the second row - if you were lucky enough to even get a shot up against her smothering defense.
Oney was the kind of player who caused opposing fans to react like they were at a predictable horror movie - gasping and looking away when she lined up another three-pointer they knew was on its way in.
Behind the three seniors and junior starters Amber Kirschbaum and Mercedees Morgan, UNI got off to a 7-2 start overall and, later, an 8-3 start in conference play.
The Panthers struggled late in the conference season, dropping six of their last seven contests and getting eliminated in the quarterfinals of the MVC Tournament. They played with a limited bench against deeper, taller, and longer teams and often came up short late in games. It would be more than fair to say UNI limped into the WBI when they accepted a third-straight postseason bid.
But when they rolled the balls back out on the court in Nacogdoches, Texas, something was different. There was a different feel, a different energy, a different purpose. It was as if they had decided it was time to take UNI Women's Basketball on tour, showing the nation what the program had grown into.
Madrigal went off for a UNI postseason record 23 points at Stephen F. Austin, only to see Armstrong score 30 in a triple-double effort two days later at Sam Houston State. Oney - apparently tired of her 18- and 20-point games being overshadowed in the first two rounds - poured in 22 points and six treys at Seattle.
The underclassmen played inspired basketball, too, as the legacy of the seniors unfolded before our eyes. Jess McDowell set new career-highs in points and rebounds during the tournament. Amanda Barton came off the bench late at Seattle to help hold off the Redhawks' rally. Brooke Brown played Madrigal's brand of lockdown defense, Sharnae Lamar flashed Armstrong-like passes and ball-handling, and Brittni Donaldson demonstrated Oney's penchant for hitting big threes in big moments.
As a team, they carried the school's banner from Nacogdoches, to Huntsville, to Seattle, and finally back to the Midwest in Minneapolis. There were stops in Houston, Shreveport, Dallas, Memphis, Chicago, Des Moines and Denver along the way - most involving bleary-eyed 4 a.m. trips to the airport and hours-long bus rides after the flights landed. But the Panthers never wavered, and one would have to assume that was partly due to the leadership.
When the Panthers rolled into Williams Arena in Minneapolis on March 25 for the WBI title game and landed the first punch - and the second and third for that matter - against the Big Ten's Golden Gophers, there seemed to be an unspoken thought from the Minnesota fans in the arena: "Who are these kids from Northern Iowa? And how are they doing this to us?"
They did it as a group. As a team. As a program.
And even though the seniors must occasionally depart, the program is here to stay.