For the second year in a row, the UW women’s basketball team fell in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament. Beyond that, the similarities between the two years are few.
Despite losing to No. 10 Ohio State in thrilling fashion, things couldn’t be much brighter for this year’s team.
Standing at 21-10—featuring road wins against Oregon, N.C. State and Michigan State—with an RPI of 31 and strength of schedule ranked 34, the Badgers are optimally positioned to garner their first NCAA bid since 2002, before head coach Lisa Stone was in the fold.
In comparison, the loss at this stage last year was not an unfortunate spoiled run at an unlikely conference tournament championship, but the final nail in a season gone awry.
To refresh your memory, the 2008 Wisconsin women generated a deserved bit of excitement in the capitol city when they breezed through their nonconference slate 10-1, including a capstone win over Baylor in the championship of the Paradise Jam tournament in the Virgin Islands (no Brittany Griner punches were thrown).
However, the team lost their first conference contest to Iowa and slumped through an abysmal conference season that saw them finish 6-12 against Big Ten foes. Worse yet, the team was forced to deal with the dismissal of junior forward and then-second-leading scorer Mariah Dunham, who allegedly was involved in a barroom scuffle.
For that version of the cardinal-and-white, the Big Ten tournament was a last-gasp attempt to catch lighting in a bottle—a dream that for a fleeting moment seemed possible after an upset of No. 2-seeded Michigan State. The ensuing loss to Purdue simply validated what everyone already knew: that team wasn’t very good. The Dunham fiasco and conference struggles had taken their toll, and the Badgers limped into the offseason with a lost to St. Bonaventure in the WNIT.
As we all well know, the intervening offseason saw the renewal of what have become annual calls for Lisa Stone’s job. The run-of-the-mill complaints were paraded out perfunctorily—she can’t recruit, she can’t maximize players talents, etc. (How couldn’t she make the tournament in four years with Jolene Anderson?!).
Somehow, though, a funny thing happened on the way to Stone’s axing…the team got good. In the face of being picked 10 out of the 11 Big Ten teams in the preseason, Wisconsin quietly churned out wins, winning the World Vision Invitational in Eugene, Ore., and winning their Big Ten/ACC match-up with N.C. State.
Of course they couldn’t sustain that through the brutal league schedule, right? I’m sure Stone’s critics thought so, until the team strung together a five out of six run, and also picked up road wins in East Lansing, Bloomington, Minneapolis, Ann Arbor and Happy Valley.
So now, after another tournament semifinal loss, it’s likely that, somewhere in the depths of the message boards, you can still find Stone’s critics predicting an early exit from the dance or a second-round embarrassment at the hands of Connecticut or Tennessee.
Well, let them snicker.
Stone has proved in her handling of this year’s squad, the instituting of a new offense, promising recruiting classes two years out and with her Big Ten Coach of the Year award that she has finally earned her tenure.
Is this an example of why knee-jerk firings devastate programs for years? I think so, but that’s a topic for later.
For the time being, Badger fans should relish the team’s placement anywhere on the NCAA bracket and be thankful to watch players like Alyssa Karel, who, oh by the way, dropped a career-high 31 in the latest contest with Ohio State.
The loss this weekend may be a little tough to swallow, but it perfectly highlights the contrast between teams past and this year. This year, Stone’s seventh, is different—I guess you could say, lucky number seven, indeed.