Benningfield prepares for fourth straight NCAA's

One short month ago, missing the NCAA tournament loomed as a real possibility for the Vanderbilt women. Today, the Commodores head into the NCAA's on an 8-0 run, including the SEC Tournament championship. Senior captain Jenni Benningfield talks about the team's remarkable turnaround. <i>The No. 2-seeded Commodores open NCAA Tournament play Saturday afternoon vs. Lipscomb in Chattanooga.</i>


VandyMania: The last time we talked at any length was back on Jan. 20, when you told me about your stress fracture and your shoe. A lot has happened since then, but, first, could you give us an update on your foot?

Jenni Benningfield: My foot's doing good. It's fine now. I'm not restricted any more. I'm doing everything, which is awesome. I'm actually in the shoe I had before my stress fracture, but I have a metal plank in it still, I completely beat up the shoe I had made. There's not a whole lot left to them. But I'm feeling good, I have no pain. I'm able to do everything-- knock on wood!

VandyMania: Since Jan. 20, you lost down at Tennessee, came back here and played really well against Ole Miss, then to Arkansas and pulled out a tight one, hit a lot of free throws down the stretch. Things were looking good. Then you came home and played Florida and lost.

JB: Right. Yeah, we had Florida here. During that stretch we played Georgia, too. It was a real disappointment, because your home court should be an advantage. We should win every home game. Those two games were very disappointing just because we didn't play anywhere near our potential. We just didn't play well. We lacked defensive effort at times.

I think at the beginning of the season when we were undefeated, we really concentrated on defense, and that's what won a lot of our games because we were still trying to catch up on our offense and getting everybody involved and timing of plays and still learning the plays.

But then in the middle of the season, after Christmas, I felt the offense started to come together. We became more offensive-minded, and we kind of lost focus on defense. Honestly, Florida and Georgia were real, real disappointing, but I think the biggest wakeup call was when we went to Alabama and lost to Alabama.

I know, speaking for myself, that I realized I needed to get back into the defensive mode. I was still trying to get back into the flow of the game, but I think I was trying to force it and do too much. I felt like, yeah, I'm playing, I'm only getting a certain amount of minutes, I better try to make everything happen, which shouldn't have been the case. I should have just let the game come to me and let my teammates do the things that they'd been doing because I hadn't been practicing that much, that kind of thing.

VandyMania: Right after the Alabama game, what was the bus ride back like?

JB: It was lot of talking, a lot of frustration. We had two buses; the coaches were on one, I think they were watching film. We were doing homework, everybody was just kind of mellow a little bit. By the end we were talking about how we just didn't like the way we were feeling, and it wasn't fun. We had to make it fun. It wasn't fun those two weeks. Those two weeks were awful. What we had to do was get back into the gym and have fun.

And I think coach really tried to make us have fun, do the things that we could do. But it really wasn't up to coach to make us have fun. We had to get competitive. We had to do the little things to make big plays that are fun. And we did that that week.

VandyMania: Listening to what you just said, on the bus coming back when you got to talking about things, do you think that's the point at which things started to change?

JB: Yeah, because I think we all realized that we're not the only ones that are feeling upset. We're not the only ones feeling empty. It was like an empty feeling those two weeks because we had no identity in the fact that we weren't playing like we had played the games before. And it made you feel better that you weren't the only one, but it made you mad, like, this is not the way it's supposed to be.

And there was no one else to blame but ourselves. The coaches prepare us. They give us scouting reports, we get film, we do stuff in practice, the practice guys are with us. We're the ones out there putting the ball in the basket or stopping the ball. And I think we had to recognize that. We can't blame it on them. We're the ones playing. It's not about the coaches. I think we were kind of like, "Ohh, what are the coaches going to do to us?"

Well, we realized it doesn't matter what they do to us, because it's about us. And honestly, since then, we have led each other in practice. Coaches haven't had to lead us. They tell us what drills to do. They tell us certain things we do wrong; they're still coaching us, but I think the difference since the Alabama game is that we're all coaching each other, encouraging but having some type of positive reinforcement.

So it's been good because I feel like we're all trying to help each other. We're not just waiting for coach to have to tell us what to do, something different or right every time.

VandyMania: Do you think it would be fair to say that's the point when you all took ownership of the team?

JB: Yeah, that's exactly what I mean. Complete ownership, because we realized that WE had to make the change. It wasn't about the coaches; it was about us. And we've done that, and they know that, and they have been supportive and have pushed us, and we've competed, and we've gotten better. And we're 8-0 out of the SEC tournament championship going into the NCAA.

Hillary and I talked about this the other day-- we're more confident than we've ever been in the last four years. That's not to say that the other teams haven't been good, but I think at this point in this particular season, the way everybody's playing right now, and the way we're leading each other, we have so much confidence right now.

We can't just be satisfied. Yeah, we won the SEC, that's great, but the season's not over. We've got six games, and we realize that and we want that. We've had some awesome practices. It's been competitive. Everybody's going at each other. It's awesome, and we've gotten better the past few days, and as long as we continue to do that, we like the way we feel right now. The last couple of weeks, 8 and 0, cutting down the nets. We want to know what that feels like again. Top Stories