Benson played another pivotal role in another JSU win Saturday. She scored a career-high 21 points in 33 minutes as the Gamecocks inched closer to an Ohio Valley Conference tournament berth with a 74-67 win over Tennessee Tech.
The Gamecocks (10-5, 6-6 OVC) are 6-2 since Jan. 11. When Benson has scored in double figures in those games, they are 6-0. They are 0-2 when she doesn’t.
“I wouldn’t call her a secret weapon, what I would say is she has matured over the course of the year and bought in,” Pietri said. “What she’s doing for us now is something she’s always been capable of, but – and this happens with lots of freshmen – there is an assimilation process.
“It took her a while to learn how to physically function at this level. I think she’s figured it out and as a result she’s having a lot of success. She’s much more on the page she’s supposed to be than she was in November and December.”
Benson’s emergence has given the Gamecocks a bona fide fourth scoring threat to go along with Candace Morton, Miranda Cantrell and Destany McLin. She is averaging 15.2 points in the six wins, 12.3 over the last eight games.
On Saturday, all four scored in double figures, combining for 70 points, with Morton going for a team-high 23. They were 23 for 40 from the floor. Benson, who said she is aware of her double-
figures-to-win streak, was 5 for 8 beyond the 3-point arc.
“It was (tough) at first, but now I’m kind of getting into the groove,” Benson said. “I’m just trying to step up for my team, letting them believe in me when I’m on the 3-point line. In the beginning they weren’t falling, but then I got in the gym and started working on it. You can tell they’ve gained that trust in me shooting it, too.”
With the win, the Gamecocks continued the best turnaround in the country this season. They won only one game last year – and that came in the next to last game of the season. They have won 10 games in a season now – and six in league play – for the first time since 2010-11.
They are so much in the playoff hunt Pietri will start scoreboard watching now to see how other games affect his team’s chances. They are one of four teams with six OVC wins -- and they’ve beaten each of the other three at least once -- and he believes one more would give them a “high percentage” of getting in the field.
A great start and a great close punctuated this win. The Gamecocks opened the game by hitting 12 of their first 15 shots from the floor, never trailed, and at the end turned back every Tech threat down the stretch.
The Golden Eagles (9-15, 6-5) drew within two inside 45 seconds left, but the Gamecocks closed it out with five free throws.
“The start offensively was as good as we’ve probably had all year,” Pietri said. “We clicked in every single way and made virtually every perimeter shot we took.
“I think in December we’d have found a way to give it up, but now we’ve developed enough confidence and belief that we can fight through a difficult situation and win it.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.