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St. Louis U. womens v Fordham

St. Louis University coach Lisa Stone watches from the bench during a game against Fordham on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017, at Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis. At left is St. Louis University guard Jordyn Frantz. (Chris Lee, Post-Dispatch file photo)

The search for an identity for her team might have ended for Lisa Stone before the regular season even begins.

For a team that is extremely young, the St. Louis University women’s basketball squad has a good amount of experience and appears to run fairly deep.

But what Stone has liked most about the preseason is the emergence of what she hopes will be a continued strength in rebounding and toughness that has been lacking.

“Our rebounding has been better than I’ve ever seen,” Stone said. “It keeps you in games and gives you extra possessions. It’s something we want to be known for.”

SLU returns sophomore center Brooke Flowers, who averaged 8.5 rebounds as a freshman. The Billikens gain the services of transfer forward Myriama Smith Traore, who Stone said might be the best offensive rebounder she’s coached. And senior forward Kendra Wilken is in the best shape of her career.

The Billikens had 18 offensive rebounds in a scrimmage against Illinois and 19 in an exhibition against McKendree. Stone has challenged the frontline trio to average 15 offensive boards per game.

At 6 feet 5, Flowers became a rebounding force over the second half of last season, pulling down 15 or more in six games. And at 6-2, Smith Traore and Wilken add bulk.

But the toughness factor doesn’t stop up front. SLU has added freshmen guards who bring a similar element that Stone hopes will permeate the lineup.

A different makeup has made for a different preseason.

“We have some pieces back but this team is different,” Stone said. “I’ve coached this team harder than any team in my career. What I’ve demanded of this team, a couple of our others couldn’t have done.”

The roster includes two seniors, two juniors, five sophomores and four freshmen. The sophomores proved to be a talented group that was sometimes on the court simultaneously last season, including in a game against Connecticut.

The Billikens finished strong and this season are picked to finish fourth in the Atlantic 10 Conference. They open this season at 7 p.m. Wednesday, at home against Tennessee-Martin.

“It is very big expectations but it’s about how we finish,” guard Ciaja Harbison said. “Obviously we want to get an A-10 championship. We gained a lot of confidence last season and it made us mentally tougher.”

The key piece is Harbison, who was last season’s Atlantic 10 rookie of the year. She was named to the A-10’s preseason first team as a sophomore.

Harbison will be a marked player after averaging 14.6 points, 4.5 assists and 3.8 rebounds despite being 5-6. She attacked the offseason knowing she needed to add to her game.

“She’s not going to sneak up on anybody,” Stone said. “She’s added a 3-point shot to her game. She worked on it and I want her shooting it. It looks really good. She’s much more mature. And I think her defense is something she was always capable of, and she can set the tone for us defensively.”

Other returning sophomores are guards Myia Clark and Chloe Rice. Stone added freshman guards Rachel Kent and Julia Martinez, who add some toughness to the backcourt.

Perimeter-shooting specialist Hannah Dossett is an intriguing transfer from Syracuse, where she played four seasons of softball before deciding to return to basketball for her graduate season.

“We’re not good enough individually to beat anybody,” Stone said. “But we’re in position to be successful because we have a lot of good pieces.”

Stone added a new approach to bonding in recent months. She forms groups of three players and meets with them and her coaching staff in casual settings, such as a coffee shop, to talk about topics from Halloween costumes to family. They end the month with a dinner.

It’s part of her focus on accountability, family and championship mentality.

“It’s been a great step in terms of trust and honesty and showing them we’re not the bad guys,” Stone said. “We’re here to help them.”