Tiffany Benson wants you to know she is not a bomb thrower.
Yes, her minutes are down. Anyone who has followed the Tribe this season knows that heading into Thursday’s matchup versus Richmond, Benson is averaging 14.8 minutes-per-game, well below her 26.6 minute-per-game career average.
And yes, Benson isn’t starting. But when she talks about her struggles so far this season, she does not sound petulant or angry. Instead, Benson sounds like one who has taken a good, hard look in a mirror and has emerged blaming no one but herself.
“I have to play better. If I want my job back, that’s what I have to do,” she said. “But for me, it’s not as much about getting my job back as it is about winning. I’m not as much concerned with my individual production as much as I want to see my team do well.”
Benson’s struggles began this summer when she missed multiple individual skill sessions and one-on-one workouts with assistant coaches. Benson continued to miss these mandatory workouts at the beginning of the season, leading Head Coach Debbie Taylor to bring the 2009 CAA Defensive Player of the Year off the bench for the season’s first game versus Radford.
“There were some things that occurred off the court [in the beginning of the season] as far as being responsible,” Benson said. “I kind of got in trouble a little bit with the coaches in terms of showing up to certain practices which I was supposed to show up to and I hadn’t really improved.”
Especially tough for Taylor and her staff was the fact that Benson is one of only two seniors on this year’s team.
“She’s had a hard time showing up and getting places on time. This is the worst she’s ever been, but she’s been more late than any kid I’ve ever coached here,” Taylor said. “I think she’s grown up a lot this year but going into the season we needed her to lead this team and she’s had some missteps.”
The situation became more complicated after the Radford game thanks to the hot starts of freshmen forwards Emily Correal and Jaclyn McKenna. Prior to Thursday, McKenna is shooting a team-high .606 percent from the floor while Correal leads the team with 9.2 rebounds-per-game.
Conversely, Benson has struggled. The nation’s 14th-ranked shot blocker last season, Benson has only one blocked shot to her name so far this year. Her rebounding numbers are also down as her 11.5 rebounds-per-game total from last season, good for eighth-best in the country, has been reduced to 5.0 rebounds per-game this season.
“For me not to be getting 12 rebounds a game, that’s a travesty to me,” Benson said. “I haven’t done it this year the way I did last season, blocking shots and rebounding. I need to push myself to get back on that level.”
With the freshman playing well, and Benson continuing to struggle, Taylor says she has no plans to change the starting lineup.
“This isn’t a physical issue, it is a mental issue,” Taylor said. “She was picked as one of the top-five players in the conference. Is she? Sure, if she plays like it. She’s only blocked one shot so far though. Doesn’t that say it all?”
After offering to put in extra work at the beginning of the season, Taylor and her coaching staff are taking a more hands-off approach with Benson, allowing the senior forward to take two days off from basketball upon returning from Seattle last weekend in order to collect her thoughts.
“I had two days off on Sunday and Monday to deal with the negativity and I got over it. This week is like a new beginning, I feel like I’m starting over this week,” Benson said.
Despite her struggles, Benson still believes she can reclaim the role she had on the team last season, when she led the Tribe in points, rebounds and blocked shots.
Taylor, who is never afraid to express her opinion, agrees with her senior forward.
“I think she has every ability to step in where she was last year and even play much better than that,” Taylor said. “She really has, if you saw her in the post season, expanded her skill set. She’s a much better player now than she was at the beginning of last season.
“She’s just got to take on the challenge that she worked so hard to get to. I still believe very strongly that this is going to be a very big year for her, but she’s got to figure this one out on her own.”