Brenda Frese hasn’t timed Katie Benzan’s 3-point shots, but the longtime Maryland women’s basketball coach is certain that she has not mentored a player with a quicker release.
Benzan also has never timed herself. But over the summer when she worked on her conditioning by seeing how many 3-pointers she could launch in five minutes, the graduate student shooting guard estimated her final count was “somewhere in the 80s.”
“I didn’t concentrate during the offseason on speeding up my shot or anything,” she said. “It just has become second nature. It just has come naturally with the reps I’ve gotten.”
The results are difficult to ignore. Benzan, a graduate transfer from Harvard who led all NCAA Division I players in 3-point percentage (.500 on 93-of-186) and paced the Terps in 3-pointers last winter, leads the team again in that department (47) while converting 43.5% of her chances (47-of-108).
But more than just a sharpshooter, Benzan ranks second on the team in total assists (64) and third in average points (12.3) and total steals (25). That diversity is significant for No. 17 Maryland (13-6 overall, 5-3 Big Ten), which welcomes Rutgers (7-13, 0-8) to the Xfinity Center in College Park Thursday for a 7 p.m. tipoff.
“It’s definitely an expansion of her game, and it’s also where we need to be as a team,” Frese said. “Just as teams are loading up and taking things away from [junior point guard] Ashley [Owusu] and sitting in the paint, there’s been things that we’ve had to change and adjust this season, and that’s a by-product of how teams are playing us this year that are different from a year ago. But she’s always been capable. We’ve always known that she’s dynamic with the ball in her hands or without.”
Benzan, who came to College Park from Wellesley, Massachusetts, has been proving herself for as long as she can remember. Listed at 5 feet, 6 inches, she is the shortest player on the Terps roster. (“I am the shortest person on the court pretty much across the board, and that’s even with the other team,” she quipped.)
Whispers about her size were “honestly too common,” Benzan said.
“But I just used their hatred and their doubt in me as fuel,” she said. “I didn’t let any of their negativity shine into my world. In essence, I turned that around to be a positive. I strived to prove all of them wrong, and here I am today playing in a Power Five conference and playing pretty well, if I can say so myself, and playing with great players for a legendary coach. I truly believe that I proved them wrong, that height is just a number and that whatever you set your mind to, you can do it.”
In three years at Harvard, Benzan was named to the All-Ivy League first team three times. She finished her career ranked No. 20 on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,223 points and owned the top three single-season 3-point records with 103 in 2018-19, 99 in 2017-18 and 85 in 2016-17.
Despite that resume, when Benzan agreed to use an extra year of eligibility with the Terps, the doubts from outsiders re-emerged. Frese said Benzan remarked about people questioning her decision.
“I’m sure she probably felt that there were a lot of people that thought she couldn’t make that jump,” Frese said. “All she did was have the kind of year she did last year with the numbers and percentages that she was able to come up with. I think that was motivation for her to show that she was capable of making that big jump.”
Benzan, who graduated from the Crimson with a bachelor’s in broadcast journalism, said as successful as her career there was, she felt a tug to test herself at the next level.
“I wanted that opportunity, to play at a big-time school to show that I could stand and play at this level,” she said. “I had a good career at Harvard. I got that degree, and I’m happy with that. But I’m moving on, and I’m playing at the highest level, I’m having fun, I’m playing with high-caliber players, I’m playing for a Hall of Fame coach. Just all of those little things add up to a great experience, and I’m lucky to be here.”
At the age of 23, Benzan is older and more experienced than some of her teammates, earning her the nickname “Team Mom,” a term of affection from her teammates. Sophomore power forward Angel Reese, who is also studying journalism, credited Benzan with helping her maturity.
“Katie will read a book while I will go out and have fun,” Reese said with a laugh. “Katie tells me sometimes, ‘Just go stay inside and do some homework.’ I want to live my college life and go hang out with friends. She’s partied and hung out with friends and done everything, but she’s showing me the way with little things like that.”
Benzan called herself “an oldie.” But she said she has taken to heart some advice from her mother Kim, who played at Holy Cross and coached at the high school level.
“She just keeps telling me, ‘Be blessed. You’re here, COVID gave you an extra year, it’s the silver lining, that frosting on the cake. So just go out there and have fun,’” she said. “Just being here and just being with my teammates and making those memories, that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to cherish the time left. I can’t even believe it’s the end of January already. This season is flying by. So I’m just trying to treasure every moment that I have with these girls and these coaches.”
Benzan’s prowess behind the 3-point line is a salve for an offense that relies on an interior game powered by the 6-3 Reese, 6-2 graduate student power forward Chloe Bibby, and 6-3 redshirt junior small forward Mimi Collins. During a three-game stretch when Benzan was out due to an unspecified illness, the Terps defeated then-No. 6 Baylor, but then lost to No. 5 North Carolina State and No. 7 Stanford by 18 points each at the Baha Mar Hoops Pink Flamingo championship over the Thanksgiving holiday.
“We felt it when we didn’t have her down in the Bahamas,” Frese said. “It was evident in the gaps and losses that we had, which were wide margins. When you lose that threat, you lose all the hustle plays, the energy. She was a big loss, and it was evident. Thank goodness she’s back and healthy and making the plays we need her to make. She’s playing like a senior where you only have so many games left. But she’s always played like that. She wants to play every game like it’s her last.”
Benzan is on pace to graduate in May with a master’s in journalism and has applied for some broadcast TV jobs along the East Coast. But her top priority is ending her career on a positive note.
“Every year, you want to end the way, but this being the last of the last, there’s a little bit more of an emphasis, more power and responsibility to make it happen,” she said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, we’ll get it next year,’ because there is no next year. So just being here, I’m just treasuring the moment and doing anything I can in my power to make it end in the right way.”
RUTGERS@NO. 17 MARYLAND
Today, 7 p.m.
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