Waiting for the Dance

Northern Iowa guard Ellie Herzberg (10) dribbles past DePaul forward Kelly Campbell (20) during the first half of a first-round game in the women's NCAA college basketball tournament in Starkville, Miss., Friday, March 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

CEDAR FALLS — A life-long basketball fan, Ellie Herzberg now understands what countless coaches and players around the country go through each and every March.

Herzberg sat with her Northern Iowa team this past Monday and watched as the Panthers were selected as an at-large for the NCAA Tournament. UNI’s run ended at the hands of 19th-ranked DePaul in the opening round Friday, 88-67.

While the end result was not what Herzberg or the Panthers (24-9 overall) were hoping for, she was able to reflect on all the “hoopla” that went on before the actual game was played.

“It was a crazy day,” Herzberg said. “Going into the selection show, we really had no clue if we would get in or not. We were trying not to get our expectations up too high because we didn’t want to hear we didn’t get into the ‘Big Dance,’ but the hope was still there.”

In the loss to the Blue Demons, who were the No. 7 seed in the region to UNI’s 10-seed, Herzberg scored 12 points.

Herzberg, who missed out on playing in the high school state tournament after suffering an injury her senior season at Manson Northwest Webster, admitted her reaction to the announcement left her in a state of disbelief for a short time.

“Initially, I was shocked,” she said. “I didn’t really know what to say or do, but being surprised quickly turned into complete joy.”

Northern Iowa advanced to the Missouri Valley Conference championship game, falling to Drake. The Bulldogs earned the automatic berth with that win and were also placed as a No. 10 seed. They will face Kansas State in Manhattan on Sunday.

There has been plenty of discussion over the two MVC programs sharing the same seed despite Drake getting the better of UNI during the season. Herzberg has done her best to ignore most of that this week.

“I have heard some talk, but have kind of tried to not read too much into it,” she said. “They’re a good team and I wish them well in the tournament.”

Herzberg entered the tournament averaging 12.3 points per game, which is second-best on the team. She is shooting 45 percent from the field and 36 percent from three, adding 2.2 rebounds and an assist per game.

What makes her point total even more impressive is that she is doing it in just 22 minutes a night. Herzberg suffered a season-ending knee injury last year eight games in after playing in all 32 games her freshman season.

The redshirt sophomore leads the Panthers in steals and also has eight blocked shots on the year.

“It will definitely feel like a dream come true,” Herzberg said. “Playing in the NCAA Tournament is something I have always dreamed of, so seeing that dream become a reality is an awesome feeling.”

Herzberg knew DePaul would be a challenge, as they claimed the Big East regular season title before advancing to the tournament finals. During the year, the Blue Demons played No. 1 Connecticut, second-ranked Notre Dame and No. 5 Baylor, dropping all three. Three of their other losses came to Marquette, including the conference championship game.

“As a team, we are just going to try to focus on the fact that it’s just our next game on the schedule,” she said. “That’s how we are going to prepare for it.”

Northern Iowa started the year 4-4 before putting together a 11-game win streak. They went 8-2 down the stretch, with both losses coming to Drake.

Herzberg and the Panthers are embracing the programs first trip to the NCAA Tournament since the 2010-11 season when they lost to Michigan State in the first round, 69-66.

“It is really crazy,” Herzberg said. “As a basketball player growing up, watching the NCAA Tournament was always a highlight of the year. Knowing I have the opportunity compete in that is such a cool feeling.”