ST. CHARLES, Mo. -- After losing nine of its first 13 games, the Northern Iowa women's basketball team didn't panic.
"We stuck with our body of work," coach Tanya Warren said. "We never lost sight of our vision."
That vision became a realization Sunday, when the Panthers used a pair of free throws from Lizzie Boeck with 7 seconds left to knock off Creighton 54-53 in the championship game of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
Northern Iowa (17-15) advances to the NCAA tournament for the first time.
Boeck, who was chosen the tournament MVP, had a game-high 19 points. She scored the last seven points of the contest to lead her team on a 9-0 run over the final 7:46. Nicole Clausen added 10 points for the fifth-seeded Panthers, who have won four in a row.
Megan Neuvirth and Chevelle Herring scored 13 points each for second-seeded Creighton (20-10).
Boeck had 53 points, 24 rebounds and 11 assists over the three games of the tournament. She hit on 20 of 35 shots from the field. She also sank 12 of 15 free throws and swished both foul shots in the closing seconds of the title tilt.
"Lizzie is as calm an individual as I've ever been around," Warren said. "She likes that pressure."
Boeck took charge down the stretch. Her short jumper with 2:07 left brought the Panthers to within 53-52 and set the stage for the finish.
Creighton took its biggest lead of the game on a driving layup by Neuvirth with 7:46 left, but the Bluejays missed their final eight shots and committed six turnovers the rest of the way.
"We always say defense wins championship," Clausen said. "Well, there it is."
The Panthers struggled the first six weeks of the season and dropped to 4-9 after a 90-80 loss at Missouri State on Jan. 2. As one of the team leaders, Boeck felt the responsibility of turning the season around.
"We knew we had the potential," she said. "We believed in ourselves and coaches."
The Panthers, who joined the conference in 1991, put together a six-game winning streak beginning Jan. 30. They lost three of their last four regular-season games before coming alive in the tournament. Northern Iowa beat Bradley 70-50 in the quarterfinals and stunned top-seeded Illinois State 61-59 in the semifinals.
Northern Iowa is the first Missouri Valley school to advance both its women's and men's team to the NCAA tournament since Creighton in 2002.
The Bluejays were upset in the championship game for the second year in a row. Last season, they dropped a 47-45 decision to ninth-seeded Evansville in the title game.
"It hurts, it really hurts, we fell short twice," said Herring, who was chosen to the five-player all-tournament team. "I don't know what to say. It doesn't feel good."