Badgers exceed expectations, earn 1st NCAA bid since 2002

first_imgDespite being picked to finish seventh in the Big Ten by the media and 10th by coaches, head coach Lisa Stone and the UW women’s basketball team had different expectations for the 2009-10 season, expectations which Stone wasted no time outlining at the team’s preseason media day.“This team wants to get to the NCAA tournament — there’s no question about that,” Stone said presciently back in October. “We’re small. We’re not real big, but we’re very, very gritty and that’s our identity. And that grit and [a] servitude mentality defensively is going to put us in a position to be there at the end.”And “there” — in the NCAA tournament field — they ended up, as unlikely as it may have seemed.Entering the year, the team faced a handful of assurances against many more uncertainties.What the team knew was that it was going to be experienced, returning 10 of 12 letter-winners from the previous season, including all five starters.The players knew they would hang their hats on defense, following the 2008-09 transition to the “pack” defense brought by assistant coach Kathi Bennett (daughter of former UW men’s coach Dick and sister of Virginia men’s coach Tony), which yielded a 10.3 points per game improvement in its first season in place.They knew on the other end of the floor they would be adjusting to and growing into a new “4-out, 1-in” motion offense, replacing the familiar “swing” system.And lastly, they knew they had to try to repeat their nonconference performance from the 08-09 season (when they went 10-1) while avoiding the Big Ten collapse that sealed their demise and third straight WNIT bid.Everything else was a rather large and ominous question mark.Yet, even with a new offense and a few new faces — most notably 6-foot freshman Taylor Wurtz — the Badgers jumped out to an equally impressive nonconference start.After halving in-state matchups with UW-Milwaukee and UW-Green Bay and escaping in an early thriller versus Cleveland State, the squad was presented with its first big test over the Thanksgiving holiday. UW traveled to Eugene, Ore., for the World Vision Invitational, beginning a brutal stretch of eight games in 18 days, including six straight on the road.Showing their resolve, though, the Badgers emerged from Eugene as the tournament champions and proceeded to gather road wins at N.C. State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and at Marquette.With two easy mid-December victories over SIU-Edwardsville and Robert Morris, the team concluded the nonconference slate in a nearly identical position to the year before — 10-1 with a holiday tournament to its credit, riding a wave of momentum into Big Ten play.But the question remained, can the Badgers do it in the league?For the most part, the answer was mixed.Compared to 2008-09, when the Badgers finished 6-12 in conference play, the 10-8 record this year’s UW squad posted represented significant improvement. Wisconsin received its first taste of Big Ten competition Dec. 6 in Columbus, Ohio against the Buckeyes.OSU had claimed the conference title every season since the 2005-06 campaign, and this year boasted the Big Ten Preseason of the Year in junior center Jantel Lavender.However, the Buckeyes came out flat on their home court, allowing the Badgers to jump out to a 28-20 halftime lead. After a 50-point second half, though, OSU made sure UW would not leave with an upset, and Wisconsin departed with a disappointing 70-55 loss.Big Ten play did not resume for Stone’s squad until Dec. 28, when the Badgers upset the then-No. 16 Michigan State Spartans at home. With the UW football team set to face Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl the next day, Stone was in a gridiron state of mind after the game.“I tell you, it was like a football game,” Stone told reporters after the game. “I know we’ve got the bowl game tomorrow, but it was a very physical Big Ten battle out there tonight.”Unfortunately for Wisconsin, any good feelings stemming from the Michigan State upset were quickly erased as the Badgers dropped their next two, both on the road, against Iowa and Illinois.Never a squad to lament its shortcomings, Wisconsin rebounded quickly to put together a four-game win streak by defeating Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State (in East Lansing, Mich., this time) and Illinois again.Once again, though, the euphoria was short-lived.Wisconsin followed the Illinois victory with a disappointing home showing against Penn State in a 54-43 loss. After that mark, the Badgers followed a win-one, lose-one pattern by playing .500 ball until a late February two-game win streak over Michigan and Penn State gave UW some momentum.The regular season also ended on a disappointing note as Iowa bested Wisconsin in a 68-60 overtime battle. Against the Hawkeyes, the Badgers used a ferocious second-half attack to rebound from a 13-point deficit before being outscored 12-4 in overtime.Five days after the loss to Iowa, Wisconsin entered the Big Ten tournament as the No. 4 seed. The Badgers earned a first-round bye in the conference tournament for the first time under Stone and the first time since 2001.Facing Purdue in the second round, UW had no difficulty in cruising to a 73-51 victory that saw one of Wisconsin’s best offensive performances of the year. As a team, the Badgers shot 50.8 percent from the field, including 47.1 percent from behind the arc.In the Big Ten semifinals, Wisconsin faced No. 1 Ohio State for the third time of the season.Once again, the Badgers were in solid position to complete an upset, but fell apart down the stretch to fall 82-73 as the Buckeyes hit key free throws down the stretch. This time, Lavender and Samantha Prahalis could not be stopped, as the duo combined for 56 points.With most bracketologists having Wisconsin firmly in the eight- or nine-seed range, UW somewhat surprisingly earned a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and squared off Sunday against No. 10 Vermont in Notre Dame, Ind.Despite their higher seeding, the Badgers fell to the Catamounts 64-55 as Vermont’s senior guard Courtnay Pilypaitis proved to be too much to handle. The 6-foot-1 Ontario native finished with 25 points and eight rebounds, as Vermont overcame Wisconsin’s 12-0 run to open the second half.With that early exit, the Badgers’ season came to an abrupt end once again.Although mixed reactions and tearful goodbyes followed the upset to Vermont, a sense of optimism for next year could not be completely overshadowed, with only two players departing — senior guards Rae Lin D’Alie and Teah Gant — and an incoming freshman class highlighted by 6-foot-4 post player Cassie Rochel, Minnesota’s No. 1 high school player per gPrep.net.“But, after all that is said and done, we’re still bringing back a lot of people, and it’s the same principles,” sophomore forward Anya Covington said. “We’ve got to learn from this experience. It’s sad that we lost in the first round, but because of this game, we’re going to be more ready for next year.”last_img

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