View Gallery (3 Photos)Following a tough start to the season, the Wisconsin women’s basketball team (9-8) has found ways to win and worked its way up to a second-place standing in the Big Ten.Despite the seven straight losses UW suffered in non-conference play, the coaching staff believes the strong competition it faced early on has made Wisconsin a better squad. Squaring off with talented teams including Duke, Kansas and UW-Green Bay, the Badgers feel the wide array of offensive and defensive systems they played against has paid off as they continue to prepare for conference opponents.“They’ll talk about it in the locker room before I walk in there,” head coach Lisa Stone said. “They will say, hey, we saw this. There’s nothing they’re going to do that we didn’t see against Duke, and Kansas, and BYU, and Oklahoma State.”Led all year by a trio of seniors in guard Alyssa Karel and forwards Tara Steinbauer and Lin Zastrow, senior leadership has been a key to success for this team. After dealing with major injuries early in the season, Wisconsin has watched the left column of its record grow as the Badgers have stayed healthy.“I’m looking forward to different combinations on the floor, who’s out there and making things go and having us be successful will be out there,” Stone said. “But right now, it’s our seniors and we got to jump on their back. They’re the ones that are going to take us as far as we can go.”The group of seniors has been especially important since UW opened Big Ten play with a statement win at Purdue, when Zastrow, Steinbauer and Karel all finished with double figures. Zastrow has looked especially impressive in Wisconsin’s recent string of victories, putting up a career-high 21 points in a tight home win over Minnesota.Although the seniors often headline the stat sheets, Wisconsin has also relied on several younger players this season. In particular, sophomore guard Taylor Wurtz, freshman guard Morgan Paige and junior guard Jade Davis have all stepped in as needed. Early in the season when Karel and Zastrow were out with injuries, the underclassmen took control of the team and showed leadership capabilities of their own.By cutting down on turnovers, something that the Badgers constantly struggled with in the non-conference season, taking better care of the ball has also been a key to success in Big Ten play.“We realize we’re a different team than we were back in non-conference, again, and a lot has to do with the health of our team,” Stone said. “And we turn it over way too much early on. We’ve gotten better at that. I think what we’ve said as a coaching staff is that we’ve got to start being more fundamentally sound.”Compiling a 4-1 conference record so far, the Badgers are proving they are legitimate contenders in the Big Ten. However, if the team wants to continue to keep up its recent success, it will have to play some of its best games of the year, as several of the toughest Big Ten opponents await.With games against ranked opponents in Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State still left on the schedule, Wisconsin will need a strong finish to the season if it wants to make the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. Despite their impressive performances since the start of the conference season, the Badgers can’t afford to lose many games due to their costly losses earlier in the year.However, with early Big Ten favorites like Iowa and Ohio State getting off to a slow start in conference play, UW is certainly in contention for a strong finish.“The conference is up for grabs,” Stone said. “You’ve got Ohio State already with two losses, Iowa with a couple losses. It’s wide open out there. And teams that stay healthy, stay together, overcome adversity and play well at the right time of year, they’re going to be the teams at the top in the end.”As always, defense will be key for the Badgers to complete the necessary late-season surge. There will be no shortage of impressive offenses for Wisconsin to face as the season continues, and the team will need to continue to pride themselves on their defense if they want to come away with their first-ever Big Ten title.“I can’t say enough about [the defense],” Stone said. “That’s who we are. Our defense is going to keep us in every single game…if you’re not scoring, you’ve always got your defense.”As the Badgers close in on their most important games of the year, they will need to keep up the defensive intensity they recently displayed against Minnesota and Purdue if they hope to earn a spot in the Big Dance come March.