CEDAR FALLS - Roles to contribute, especially in the front court, are available for the taking on a Northern Iowa women's basketball program coming off back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances.
Enter Jess McDowell.
The former Times-Republican All-Area Girls Basketball Player of the Year will be starting her sophomore season tonight at 8:30 p.m. at the McLeod Center as the Panthers host Colorado State.
T-R PHOTO BY MARK PAWLAK
Northern Iowa sophomore Jess McDowell shoots during the Panthers women’s basketball team’s media day recently. The AGWSR High School grad will be one of the frontcourt players UNI will be counting on coming off the bench.
After redshirting in her first season at UNI (2009-10), McDowell played in 23 games last winter. She averaged 1.7 points, 1.0 rebounds and 5.9 minutes per game. She had a career-high seven points against Evansville.
The 6-foot-1 forward McDowell is one of four Panthers who stands over 6-foot. She is the tallest of those that have any playing experience with the Panthers.
Northern Iowa graduated its top front court starters from last season in Lizzie Boeck and Erin Brocka. Both are in the UNI career top 10 in rebounds, blocks and games played.
"Personal goals this year for me is just really to find my role, which I think I have found," McDowell said during the team's media day. "It's to be aggressive, to rebound, be a good screener, if I have an open shot take it, be assertive and play with consistency."
Northern Iowa head coach Tanya Warren envisions going nine to 10 players deep especially with the aggressive pressing defensive style that has come to define the Panthers. Northern Iowa led the Missouri Valley Conference in scoring defense last year and ranked 20th nationally at 54.8 points per game.
McDowell was a part of a pretty good defense during her high school days as well. AGWSR was perennially among Iowa high school girls' basketball's top scoring defenses and set the all-time Iowa record for scoring defense during the 2008-09 state championship run.
"We really hang our hat on defense and I like defense, it's my favorite personally over offense, I love it," McDowell said. "We mix things up so much, I think it really gets teams a little bit nervous about what we're going to do, especially with the press and traps."
The summer for McDowell saw a four-day-a-week routine of lifting and conditioning, as well as playing in the Game Time League in Cedar Rapids.
The NCAA tournament appearances in 2010 and 2011 for UNI represent the only two tourney trips in program history. Northern Iowa's regular season Missouri Valley Conference title last winter (17-1) also was the first Valley title for the Panthers.
"I've been blessed to be on our team the last two years and that we've made the NCAA twice," McDowell said. "That's definitely our goal this year to get back there and then also to advance."
The Panthers' momentum took somewhat of a blow when 2011 Valley Player of the Year Jacqui Kalin was lost for the season after suffering a knee injury during an open gym.
"We were all there when it happened and I think initially we were in shock a little bit," McDowell said.
"Obviously she had such a great summer, it's sad to see her go down from that, but she'll be back.
"Coach Warren said it best, we still have our same goal, just a different way of doing it now. It's still going to get done there's just a little bit different tweaking with how it's going to be done."
During the Panthers' lone exhibition game, an 84-49 victory over Maryville on Sunday, McDowell had two points, two rebounds, an assist and a block in 16 minutes of play off the bench.
Colorado State of the Mountain West Conference went 14-16 last winter. The Rams feature MWC Preseason Player of the Year Kim Mestdagh. The 5-foot-10 guard/forward averaged 17.1 points and 5.5 rebounds per game last year.