DeKALB – Kathi Bennett looked at the tape.
She couldn’t recall if guard Amanda Corral missed a shot for the entire Monday practice. The Northern Illinois freshman, a type of shooter Bennett said “if she gets her feet set, ohhh,” missed just one in a couple of hours at the Convocation Center.
Something else stuck out on the tape to NIU’s second-year coach. Redshirt freshman forward Jenna Thorp, doing the things that don’t always get the main focus in live action.
There was Thorp, time and again, setting screens and giving precious seconds for Corral to get her feet set.
“Jenna knows that. So Jenna will do everything in her power to make [Corral] better and screen and get her open,” Bennett said at Tuesday’s NIU basketball media day. “And Amanda has a basketball IQ where she knows how to move without the ball and not stand and so she got so many open looks just because of Jenna. Stuff like that, that’s different.”
Different was an active word at media day, as an excited Bennett said she believes her team has the potential to compete for a Mid-American Conference title after a 13-17 season in her first season. With a team that lost its two top scorers in guard Marke Freeman and forward Ebony Ellis, but returns seven players and brings in four newcomers plus Thorp who redshirted last season with a torn ACL, the Huskies will have different look this season.
“I think as a team we want to be there for each other and not just put ourselves on the line,” Thorp said. “I think each day we get better. Usually after practice we talk about what we need to improve on and what we did that day.”
Part of that different look started at practice, when Bennett instituted a scoring system for nearly every drill and the staff keeps a running tally.
That’s increased competition for a team Bennett said eventually can go deep into its bench.
“I think there’s a lot more competition and also our practice players make us that much better,” Thorp said.
Bennett said one of the team’s core defensive drills is a 3-on-3 closeout, and she’ll put three minutes on the clock and a group of three players has to stay on defense for the full three minutes.
On the few occasions Bennett said she’s missed starting the clock or will talk to the team while the clock is running, her players are so into the competition they’ll yell at their coach to stop the time.
“We’re kind of looking for that separation,” Bennett said. “We have a group of kids who are all, I say highly competitive but I don’t know what the word is, but man, none of them want to lose. None of them want to be sitting. They fight to stay on the floor.”
Bennett said examples like that are a part of a culture change in Year 2. She said she had more conversations with players about team goals and how to accomplish them. Bennett added that more players were in the gym working out, sophomore guard Danielle Puilliam shot an estimated 30,000 shots this summer.
Then, there’s the return of Thorp. Bennett said with the redshirt freshman coming off the ACL injury, it will take at least a few games for her to get used to live action against an opponent again, not to mention that it will be her first time going up against Division I competition. But it was hard not to look at Thorp’s potential.
“I think the addition of Jenna, oh my goodness, she’s an intangible kid,” Bennett said of the Hinckley-Big Rock graduate. “She’s an X-factor kid. She’s a kid that wins. You can’t hide what she does, and it’s not always pretty, and it’s not always ball-going-through-the-basket things, but there’s just something about what she brings.”
Thorp’s play evoked a conversation Bennett often had with her dad, legendary coach Dick Bennett and the importance of having what he called an X-factor player on the floor.
“It’s the loose-ball kid, it’s the all-out defense kid, it’s diving on the floor, taking charges. That kid, he said if you can have one on the floor, oh my gosh, but if you can have two on the floor, you’re destined for success,” Bennett said. “I know we’ve got one in Jenna. Hopefully we’re going to find another X-factor kid.”