Breaking out: Benningfield reaching her star potential
By Andrew Derr

Early in her grade-school career, her father saw it and predicted she would one day win the state's Miss Basketball award; three years ago, Vanderbilt Coach Melanie Balcomb, then with Xavier, witnessed it as well, and fought like crazy for her to become a Musketeer; these days, it's position coach Vicky Picott who sees it every day in practice and wonders how far this woman can go.

What is "it"?

"It" is talent, and in case you haven't noticed, Jenni Benningfield's got plenty of it.

The junior Commodore is averaging over 16 points and eight rebounds per game in a breakout season. She has complemented All-American candidate Chantelle Anderson so well that teams are no longer able to double- and triple-team Anderson without exposing themselves to Benningfield's scoring.

"Most guards can't play her on the block, and most post-players can't guard her on the perimeter," assistant coach Picott said of Benningfield, who is shooting almost 61% from the field this year, good for second in the Southeastern Conference and ninth in the nation. "She's just talented, very talented."

Recently, Benningfield connected on 12 of 14 attempts for a career-high 28 points against Arkansas. She also collected 10 boards for her seventh double-double of the season, a stat that leads all Commodores. Through 19 games, she has scored in double-figures 16 times, second only to Anderson, who has scored more than 10 points in every contest.

For the third-year player from Louisville, Kentucky, this season has been about stepping up to face a challenge.

"The window of opportunity has definitely arrived for me this year," Benningfield said. "My first two years, I was more of a role player, watching Chantelle and (former forward) Zuzi (Klimesova) go to work down-low. Now it's kind of my turn to play with Chantelle, and I'm just trying to make the most of it."

"Jenni's not doing anything I didn't expect her to do. All you had to do was look at her ability," Picott said of Benningfield. "Jenni can back you down in the post, and she's got every move you can think of, and they're all aggressive. She has a soft touch around the basket, and then she can go out and drain the three-point shot."

"I'm so used to shooting the ball outside, and I love to shoot the three," Benningfield admitted. "I get the best of both worlds. I get to shoot outside, but I am really starting to love working in the paint, and banging with people down low."

The 6-3 forward is as comfortable out on the perimeter as she is down low in the paint, and this season, Benningfield is shooting lights-out basketball, treating Vanderbilt fans to Shelley Jarrard-type accuracy from outside and inside effectiveness reminiscent of Heidi Gillingham.

Jarrard and Gillingham were all-SEC members of the 1992-93 Vanderbilt squad, a team which made it to the school's first and only Final Four. After finishing just one win shy of the Final Four last season, Benningfield and her teammates want nothing more than to get back among the nation's elite.

"Our main goal is to be the only team that ends the season with a win and to do that, we have to learn something from every game," Benningfield said recently. "The number one thing we have to do is believe in ourselves and have the confidence that we can do it."

While Benningfield and Anderson dominate the front-court, the team takes its cue from its energizer point guard, Ashley McElhiney. Running the offense, McElhiney has seen the impact of Benningfield's progress.

"She's picked up right where Zuzi left off. She's scoring, she's rebounding, and she's playing good defense," McElhiney said recently. "Chantelle's an All-American, and she gets the attention of every team we play. Others are having to pick up the slack, and Jenni's doing a great job of putting herself in a position to score."

"I knew I had to step up this year, with Zuzi being gone," the junior forward said. "Chantelle is going to need some help down low, and I worked all summer on being a better post player and getting stronger."

Overcoming injuries to become Miss Basketball
Growing up in the tradition-rich state of Kentucky, it was not uncommon for boys and girls of all ages to dream of winning state titles and carrying home all sorts of envied hardware for their trophy cases. One such coveted trophy was Kentucky's Miss Basketball award, an honor Benningfield was destined to receive … at least according to her father.

"At some point in grade school, when I was very young, a friend of ours was watching me play a game, and I had played pretty well," Benningfield recalled from her childhood playing days. "He said, 'Jenni's going to be a great basketball player' and my dad said, "well, you know, when she graduates high school, she'll win Miss Basketball.'

"He had this confidence in me, and it was a great feeling to do it," Benningfield added. "All that hard work and overcoming obstacles, to accomplish something that I had wanted since I was little, it was just awesome."

One such obstacle was the injury bug. Before even playing her senior season at Assumption High School in Louisville, it had bit Benningfield twice. First, in junior high, Benningfield showed an early sign of the toughness and work ethic Commodore fans see on game nights. Believe it or not, Benningfield broke both her feet at the same time.

"My one foot had been starting to hurt one week, but I didn't think too much about it," the Commodore forward recalled. "Then one day, we were running 'suicides' at practice, and my other foot popped in the same exact spot. I ended up going to the hospital and getting x-rays on both my feet. It was ironic, but I had broken both my feet in the same spot."

Then, in her junior year, Benningfield suffered a knee injury that kept from playing her final season of volleyball.

"I was very disappointed that I didn't play my senior year, because I truly missed volleyball," Benningfield, who was a high school All-American in the sport, said recently. "But I made the best decision at the time, because basketball was my favorite sport."

Indeed, the decision was a good one. Benningfield not only was Miss Basketball in Kentucky in the year 2000, she was honored as Kentucky's Gatorade Player of the Year (1999 & 2000), was a Parade All-American (2000) and also a Street & Smith All-American (1999 & 2000).

"Winning the Miss Basketball award was a big honor, because we had so many great players my senior year," Benningfield said. "It was an unbelievable time."

Xavier Recruit turned Commodore Black-n-Gold
For good reason, numerous schools recruited Benningfield heavily in the late 1990s and 2000, none more than Vanderbilt and Xavier. Interestingly enough, Vanderbilt's current coach, Melanie Balcomb, coached the Musketeers at the time.

"Back in high school, (Coach Balcomb) recruited me very heavily," Benningfield recalled. "It was down to Xavier, Vanderbilt and another school, and it was very, very hard to turn them down. It is ironic to have it work out like this, but I was very, very excited when I heard who was coming to Vanderbilt."

Needless to say, Benningfield was excited that the incoming head coach knew of her abilities.

"When we saw each other, Coach said, 'well, we're now going to have that chance to work together,'" Benningfield said. "We were both anxious to get started and it's been great since the first day."

Watching her on the court and listening to her talk about her play, it is evident that the new coaching style suits Benningfield just fine.

"I can't even describe to you how wonderful it has been this year," she said. "The transition has been great. Coach Balcomb brings so much energy to practice each day, and she just motivates us to work hard.

"She just knows how to get everyone involved, how to teach basketball to each of us", Benningfield added.

"Overall, Jenni has really adapted to this style of play," McElhiney said of her fellow starter. "The attributes that Coach Balcomb brings to the team, that's what Jenni had been looking for. She just plays better in this style and she's shown it during the games."

Coach Picott, who played at Rutgers in the late 1980s and ranks third on that school's all-time scoring list, sees Benningfield growing every day in practice and says coaching her has been a thrill.

"I'm just really impressed with her work ethic; the kid just wants to be really good," Picott said. She's going to give everything you ask of her, and that's what I love about coaching Jenni. She wants to do whatever will help the team, and that's the biggest part of why she's playing so well."

The feeling for all the coaches is mutual.

"Coach Picott is incredible," Benningfield readily admitted of her positions coach. "She is just awesome and I feel myself growing as a player every day.

"More than anything, with Coach Balcomb and the entire coaching staff, there's an awesome relationship between the players and the coaches, both on and off the court," Benningfield added. "Coach Balcomb is not just a great coach, but she is an awesome person. She's one you can go and talk to not just about basketball, but about life. And that says a lot."

Big wins early lead to high expectations
To highlight Benningfield's current season as her only successful one would be misleading. While she has fully emerged this season as a go-to player, the Louisville, Kentucky native made strides as soon as she walked on campus two seasons ago. As a freshman, she started every game, and was a permanent fixture behind the three-point line that season. Benningfield connected on 56 of 139 long-range bombs that season, a record for Vanderbilt freshmen. As a testament to her hustle at both ends of the court, she led the team in rebounds that year in 11 games.

Last year, during her sophomore campaign, Benningfield continued to shoot over 40% from beyond the arc, connecting on 42 of 102 attempts.

There were several momentum-building wins during those first two seasons that now serve as motivation for the junior starter. Along with the Commodores victory over Tennessee in the SEC tournament two years ago, Benningfield counts last year's nationally televised-win over the Lady Vols and the SEC tournament title win against LSU as her greatest memories so far.

"Last year, beating UT at home, on national TV, everyone just came together and it was unbelievable," Benningfield said. "And then winning the SEC tournament, the moment you cut down that net, it's indescribable. Being up there on that ladder, you just hope you get up there again."

That moment was definitely not lost on Benningfield: she hangs on to a piece of netting for motivational purposes this season.

"I still have it with me when I play," Benningfield admitted with a slight laugh. "Sometimes I stick it under my spandex when I play to just give me a reminder of what that championship feeling is, of all the hard work that went into getting the title."

This season, despite Benningfield's early successes, the team has struggled somewhat, off to just a 13-6 start after finishing last season at 30-7 and a run to the Elite Eight.

"This season, we all have a lot of expectations and goals," Benningfield commented. "We have played some really great games this season, but there have been some where we didn't really play up to our potential."

Ever the optimist, Benningfield added that all she and the team can do is turn any loss into something positive.

"Every team has their bumps in the road, and it all comes down to how you handle those," she said. "Because of those tough losses, and due to some of the tough games we've won, we're going to be so much more prepared come tournament-time. I feel like we've definitely taken steps forward."

Indeed, with the heart of the conference schedule awaiting the Commodores in February, fans will certainly be eager to see if Benningfield and this team can repeat last year's conference tournament success and maybe even make a run for the school's second Final Four.

"We have the advantage now," Benningfield concluded. "We know how it feels to win, and we know what it takes to get it done. We just have to do it."



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