Tanya Warren's vision was to have the Northern Iowa women's basketball program holding up the Missouri Valley Conference champion poster.
The Panthers (24-5) won the conference tournament for the first time in program history last season and go after repeating the feat this weekend in St. Charles, Mo., under head coach Warren.
After a 17-1 run through the Missouri Valley this season and claiming the school's first MVC regular-season championship, Warren was named the MVC Coach of the Year on Thursday.
The fourth-year Northern Iowa head coach has a 65-58 career mark. The Panthers went 13-18 in 2007-08, then 11-19 in 2008-09. Closing last winter by winning 10 of its final 13 allowed UNI to go 17-16 and participate in the program's first NCAA tournament.
The success is what Warren anticipated may come to be in Cedar Falls.
"One of the first things that I did in the interviewing process is I brought in the little mini Missouri Valley champion posters, I left those with each player and asked if I got hired for the job if they would bring those to the press conference and they certainly did," Warren said during the MVC coaches teleconference. "That is something that has stayed in every one of our notebooks even to this day."
Today, 12:05 p.m.
Family Arena, St. Charles, Mo.
TV: Fox Sports Midwest
Commitment to that vision has been a foundation of Northern Iowa's runaway to the conference crown. The Panthers' five-game margin is the largest gap between first- and second-place in MVC history.
"I think she's good at demonstrating a vision. In my opinion that's her biggest strength," said Creighton head coach Jim Flanery, who had Warren on his staff as an assistant before she took over at UNI. "She can communicate a vision and she's done that really well at Northern Iowa and got their kids to believe in what she wants them to do."
The Panthers have doubled the old school record for consecutive victories with their current streak of 16 straight and are winning by 20.6 points per game during their impressive run. UNI is No. 40 in the lastest RPI with the best season-ending RPI in program history being its finish at No. 78 in 1998-99.
"It's an extreme pleasure to see the team's hard work pay off, especially on a day-to-day basis," Warren said.
Northern Iowa has done it on both ends of the floor. The Panthers lead the MVC in both scoring (69.6 points per game, tied with Illinois State) and defense (55.1 ppg).
Defensively, the Panthers have held 15 of their 18 opponents to 60 points or less during conference play, including holding three in a row in the 30s.
Top-seeded Northern Iowa faces No. 8 Bradley (16-16) in today's 12:05 p.m. Quarterfinal. The Braves eliminated No. 9 seed Evansville (8-22) in Thursday's opening-round tilt, 64-47.
The Missouri Valley has traditionally been a one-bid conference to the NCAA tournament. The MVC postseason tournament has been known for its unpredictability so the Panthers know to be ready for anything. Even without winning the conference final on Sunday, Northern Iowa is making a case for an at-large NCAA berth.
"17-1 that's hard to do, I don't care what league you're in," Flanery said, adding that he has the Panthers at No. 25 in his rankings for the Coaches' Top 25.
"I do think they've had a great year and their consistency is something that you don't see in a lot of teams," he added. "You ought to reward that. I think they are deserving of being in the discussion."
The Panthers won the MVC tournament as a No. 5-seed last season. Two No. 8s and a No. 9 also have won it all over the last six seasons.
"We're living proof that anything can happen," Warren said.
"There's no doubt in our mind that it is a wide open tournament, anything can happen," she added.