It's no secret the Panthers' basketball team didn't start the year the way they wanted to. Injuries, illness, and a high-level nonconference schedule made for a tumultuous start.

With one game remaining in the regular season, it's safe to say they've figured it out.

The Panthers have won eight of their last nine games, and are 13-4 in Missouri Valley Conference play. Between three of those four losses, UNI was outscored by a total of 15 points. In a conference that boasts five other teams who could make a run to a conference tournament title, the purple and gold are 6-3 against those squads.

UNI is a significantly better team than their overall record of 17-10 shows. On Saturday in the McLeod Center, they'll face a team that made it to the NCAA Tournament's Final Four in 2018 and the Sweet Sixteen in 2021. In other words, Loyola-Chicago is pretty good, too.

And this game has a lot on the line.

Bragging Rights 

For those unaware, Loyola-Chicago determined it would be leaving the MVC at the end of this academic year. They'll be heading to the Atlantic-10 Conference. After winning 20+ regular-season games the last five years, they were given the opportunity to take a step up in competition.

A majority of MVC fans understand their willingness to leave, and they have great respect for the program. Porter Moser (who is now the head coach at Oklahoma) did an excellent job building it to what it has become, and since taking over this year, Drew Valentine has continued the legacy of Rambler basketball. They deserve the opportunity that was given to them.

Fans and teams across the conference still have their pride, though. I mean, listen to what Trae Berbow said before their last contest:

Loyola did go on to defeat UNI handily in the following contest -- that's true.

I will say this, though: Loyola probably had their best shooting game of the year, and there are few, if any, teams that could have competed with what they did that day. For clarification purposes, the Ramblers shot 51.9% from three and 63.6% from the field. Their averages in league play are 35.9% from deep and 47.9% from the field.

But UNI has the firepower and the defensive prowess to compete, and defeat, this team when everything doesn't go Loyola's way. And the Panthers want to win this for the rest of the MVC.

It's Gary Rima's Last Home Game

Gary Rima, the voice of the Panthers for the last 29 years, announced earlier this year that he'd be retiring at the end of the season.

For so many reasons, Gary is beloved in the Cedar Valley. One being his absolute passion, excitement, and desire for everything that is UNI sports. Just this last Sunday, UNI honored Gary at halftime, and the players wore shirts that donned two of his well-known catchphrases: "Oh, baby! I love this team!" Rima is also known for his classic "Kaboom! Ka-bullseye!" calls when the Panther hit a shot from downtown.

The Strawberry Point, Iowa native has been around the program for signature moments like UNI's gargantuan upset of No. 1 North Carolina in the McLeod Center in 2015, Paul Jesperson's half-court heave to top Texas in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and Ali Farohkmanesh's three-pointer dagger that put an end to No. 1-seeded Kansas' season in March Madness of 2010.

Speaking of which, I forgot one legendary call, from the legendary broadcaster: "Jake and the Giant Killers have slayed another one!"

Considering how much he's done and been around for in the Cedar Valley, Gary deserves a packed house just as much as the players do to end the season.

Goodbye (?) to a Few Panther Legends

It sure feels like Trae Berhow, Tywhon Pickford, and Austin Phyfe have been with the Panthers for more than five years.

Berhow is one of the best three-point shooters in school history, Pickford is one of the best rebounders and defenders, and Phyfe (whose dad, Steve, played for UNI as well) has easily been one of the best big men the program has ever seen.

Though he hasn't been in a Panther jersey quite as long, Cedar Falls' very own AJ Green has done quite a bit for the program, too. The four-star, ESPN Top-100 recruit chose to represent his hometown school over scholarship offers from programs like Virginia, Iowa State, Clemson, and interest from blue bloods like Michigan State. He's earned a few awards since joining the UNI squad too, and may very well have a shot at a spot on an NBA roster in the future.

These four players have fought through the ups and downs of young rosters, making conference tournament runs, winning the regular-season title, and more.

Though they have their different reasons for graduation and moving on from school, each member of the quartet has made their impact known in the Cedar Valley, and they have another shot to do it again -- one last time at home.

Most Importantly: The Missouri Valley Conference Regular Season Title

It's been an absolute dog fight in the MVC all season long. As I mentioned, six teams may have a shot at taking the conference tournament title in St. Louis -- they call it Arch Madness for a reason.

Because of the sheer level of competition, having the No. 1 seed going into the tourney sure would be nice. Plus, not having to worry about the unlikely scenario where they could fall to the third spot would be even better.

Should the Panthers snag the first seed, they'll play a lower-tier team in their first game on Friday. Based on the chart below, that'd be either Indiana State or Illinois State. They've gone 4-0 against the Sycamores and Red Birds this season.

If they were to fall to the two-spot, chances are they'd face off with Valparaiso, a team that has several Big-10 transfers on it, and a squad they went 1-1 against this season (albeit the loss was on the road and without Green who was out due to COVID protocols).

Should the Panthers be the third seed, that'd be where things get tough. They'd face a red-hot Southern Illinois in their first game and have to follow it up by facing the likes of either Missouri State or Drake in the semifinals. Even if they were to win there, they'd face a tough team with a lot of momentum for the third time in three days in the championship game.

In other words, it would be huge for UNI to take the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title. And though all of that is on the line, taking the conference championship would be massive, no matter the circumstance.

And here's the thing -- it would be more massive for UNI to take the title in front of a sold-out McLeod Center, over a rival leaving the conference, with a legend on the mic, with four of the programs best (possibly) playing their final game at home, and grabbing all the momentum heading into the conference tournament.

UNI will face Loyola in the McLeod Center this Saturday at 5 PM.

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