If progress is measured in incremental steps for the Gophers women’s basketball team, next year should bring about the program’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2009.

“Absolutely,” head coach Pam Borton said when asked if that is a realistic expectation. “I felt we had a good chance to do it this year. It’s our fault we didn’t do what we needed to do to get in.”

Instead, the Gophers (18-13, 7-9 in the Big Ten) settled for a WNIT bid and a first-round matchup against Ball State at 7 p.m. Friday at Williams Arena. That’s a step up from last season, when Minnesota ended the regular-season 15-17 and accepted a bid into the lower-level WBI postseason tourney, where it won four home games against foes outside of major conferences to take home the title.

With all five of this year’s starters expected back next season, Borton hopes a run in this year’s WNIT — which features 64 teams, including many from top conferences — will help build momentum toward an NCAA berth next year.

“I think it’s great for our young team to continue to play in March. We’re in a better situation this year than we were last year. … For this group, it’s an educational process,” she said. “We need to use this to propel us.”

In particular, Borton is hoping to see better defensive intensity from her entire team and more offensive consistency outside of Rachel Banham. The sophomore averaged 21.0 points this season. Micaella Riche chipped in 13.0 per game, but no other player averaged more than seven. As a team, Minnesota was second in the Big Ten in scoring (70 ppg) but second-to-last in points allowed (65.8 ppg).

“It comes down to a couple of possessions every game,” Borton said. “Our problem is consistency. That’s what we’re looking for here in the final stretch.”