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Stone\’s squad exceeded expectations but struggled in conference play.[/media-credit]

Looking back on the 2008-09 season for the University of Wisconsin women’s basketball team following its season-ending loss Thursday to St. Bonaventure, head coach Lisa Stone had one word in mind: identity.

The Badgers, without a bona fide superstar following the graduation of its top three scorers from a year ago, found their identity this season through two things: defense and team unity.

“This young squad gained an identity of defense and rebounding,” Stone said. “We soared out to a 10-1 start and put up 19 wins on the season and … look forward to our offseason and preparing for next year.”

Wisconsin’s 10-1 start, which tied for third-best in school history, featured a 10-game winning streak following a season-opening road loss at South Dakota State. The winning streak was fueled by the Badgers’ victory over then -No. 6 Baylor — who earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA field — at the Paradise Jam Tournament in the Virgin Islands, earning Wisconsin the early season tournament title.

Unfortunately for Wisconsin, however, despite an impressive 10-1 start, the Badgers’ season quickly went south just four games into the conference season.

After starting Big Ten play with two wins in three games, UW won just four of its final 15, finishing in seventh place in the conference and on the outside looking in for an NCAA berth.

“A tale of two halves,” Stone said following the game against St. Bonaventure. “We just talked to our team about expectations of the program looking at the season as a whole. … We’re disappointed in our second half. It was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde just a little bit.”

Although Stone was referring to the Badgers’ third-round WNIT loss to the Bonnies, the comment also applies in talking about Wisconsin’s season as a whole. The two seasons for Stone’s squad — nonconference and conference — were polar opposites of each other as UW finished 10-1 in nonconference play and 8-13 against Big Ten opponents, including the Big Ten Tournament.

Wisconsin’s conference tournament run was impressive with wins over Northwestern and Michigan State, but its third-round exit from the WNIT was anything but. Alhough UW did have a 15-day layoff between its last game in the Big Ten Tournament and its first in the WNIT against Kentucky, the Badgers performed poorly in both games in the tournament.

First, UW barely managed to hold off the Wildcats in the first round, earning a 49-45 victory solely based on the efforts of its defense. In Sunday’s third round matchup Wisconsin looked at good in the first half as it has all year, shooting over 60 percent from the field and holding the Bonnies to just 18 points before collapsing in the second half against St. Bonaventure en route to a season-ending 56-51 loss.

Despite the disappointing end to the season, the future looks bright for the Badgers, who should return every player minus senior Caitlin Gibson and gain two more in junior transfer Emily Neal and incoming freshman Taylor Wurtz.

“Another thing that’s sometimes overlooked is we’re also very young,” sophomore forward Tara Steinbauer said. “I think next year we’re going to bring a lot more experience. Obviously Caitlin will be missed, but we’re going to be gaining two great players. So, I think you’re for sure going to see a strong Wisconsin team next year.”

Although Wisconsin’s season was cut short, several players should benefit from the wealth of experience gained through playing time earned this season. Guard Jade Davis is one of the Badgers’ best shooters both beyond the arc and at the free throw line. Forwards Anya Covington and Ashley Thomas are both excellent defenders while Covington provides an excellent inside presence, especially on the defensive boards.

Expect next year’s Badgers to field a similar three-guard lineup with Wurtz, a 6-foot guard adding to UW’s depth in the backcourt.

Wurtz averaged a Wisconsin- best 25.4 points per game as a senior while leading Ripon to a 22-1 record in the 2008-09 season. Ranked No. 20 in her class among guards by ESPN HoopGurlz, she should see plenty of time and provide an immediate scoring threat for UW.

With guards Davis, Teah Gant, Alyssa Karel, and Wurtz along with forwards Lin Zastrow and Steinbauer, the Badgers should have six players who, on any given night, could lead Wisconsin offensively, something that should bode well for the often offensively-challenged cardinal and white.