Only Panthers can prevent Drake’s title

MVC frontrunners can clinch outright conference crown

DES MOINES — With three home games remaining and a two-game lead in the Missouri Valley Conference standings, the No. 21 Drake women’s basketball team is on the brink of securing the top seed for the league tournament.

The only team that can spoil the Bulldogs’ celebration is the one visiting the Knapp Center tonight.

Northern Iowa, which lost to Drake in a double-overtime thriller Jan. 27 in Cedar Falls, will try to prevent the Bulldogs from clinching an outright MVC regular-season title in tonight’s 7 p.m. contest.

The Panthers (20-6, 13-2) bring a four-game winning streak into their last conference road contest, carrying a two-game advantage ahead of Missouri State for second place in the league standings. Drake (22-4, 15-0), however, is riding a 16-game win streak — tied for the program record — and a win against its in-state rival can clinch the team’s first outright conference crown since 2000.

The Bulldogs feature the conference’s top scoring offense — by more than 16 points per game — while UNI has the second-best offensive and defensive scoring averages. Drake is tops in 3-point shooting percentage (.358), while the Panther defense is the league’s best against the trey (.284).

This showdown also features three of the MVC’s preseason all-conference first-team selections in Drake seniors Lizzy Wendell and Caitlin Ingle and Northern Iowa senior Madison Weekly.

Wendell, the MVC Preseason Player of the Year, leads the league with a 20.9 point per game scoring average, while Weekly (15.3) is third. Drake has found assistance from potential Freshman of the Year Becca Hittner, while Panther sophomore Ellie Herzberg has emerged as one of the conference’s top scoring threats.

Slowing down the Bulldogs’ vaunted offense will be a priority for the Panthers, but far from an easy one tonight at the Knapp Center.