Chelsea Benham is finding out that sometimes it’s good to push people around.
Benham had been getting more than she was giving in the paint in her first two years at Centre College, but she’s starting to even the score this season after working last summer to get stronger.
The junior forward has been pleased with the results, particularly over the last two weeks, when she said she has been playing her best basketball of the season. And she said she’s pleased with the way she is able to get more done in the lane these days.
“Used to I couldn’t get any depth into the paint, so I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere, but this year I feel like my legs are a little bit stronger underneath me and I’m able to slide into girls more, to bang with girls more and still get my shot up,” Benham said.
Those shots are falling more often than not. Benham is one of the best shooters in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference, where she ranks second in field goal percentage (.518) and third in free throw percentage (.859) going into the Colonels’ game Saturday against Sewanee at Alumni Gymnasium.
“When we get it settled in the half-court, she’s one of our weapons we have to go to. She does a great job scoring in the half-court for us,” Centre coach Wendie Austin-Robinson said.
The 5-foot-11 Taswell, Ind., native is second on her team in both scoring and rebounding — she averages 13.1 points and 5.9 rebounds — just as she was last season in her first year as a starter. But she said she is a different player this year as a result of her work in the offseason.
“Last year I was more just a driver and that’s about all I had, but this year I’ve been working more on my post shots and moves and things like that,” Benham said. “I tried to work out a lot this summer to put on some muscle in order to be physical down low. That was one of my goals this year, to be able to crash the boards harder and get up shots with more physical players.
“Overall, my workouts were focused on getting myself stronger, and coach Austin and (assistant) coach (Tom) Campbell really wanted that for me, too.”
She said she is in the best condition on her college career, and she said the entire team is stronger this season as a result of a concerted effort in the weight room.
The payoff is an 18-1 record, punctuated by a current 15-game winning streak. Centre is receiving votes in a national poll, and the Colonels are one victory away from matching their highest win total since 2000-01, the last year they won the SCAC championship and played in the NCAA Division III tournament.
Winning the SCAC tournament is now the ticket to an NCAA bid, and Benham said that’s what they have been pointing toward since the start of the season.
“We’ve been talking about the conference tournament since day one. That’s been our motivation,” she said. “We always have our minds focused on the next game, but we always focus on the big picture. We look at that conference tournament, and we want that banner to be hung up in the gym.”
Benham is doing her part, and she said she has tried to assert herself not only as a more physical player but also as a veteran on a veteran team.
“I really feel like as an upperclassman now, as a junior, that my role is going to step up,” she said.
She said she also has a firm grasp on her role within a locker room in which there are all sorts of personalities.
“I would say I’m the motherly figure of the group. I try to take care of everybody, make sure everyone’s doing all right, check up on people,” she said.
She said the Colonels are a close team, and the experiences she has had with her teammates has made her basketball experience better.
“If it wasn’t for these girls, I don’t think I’d enjoy the game as much as I do,” Benham said. “We’ve just been blessed by God for everyone to be put together as we are.”
Benham has been enjoying the game even more over the last two weeks. She said she felt she made something of a breakthrough in games on consecutive nights Jan. 20-21 against Southwestern and Trinity (Texas). She had 30 points and 13 rebounds in the two games, including a season-high 20 points against Trinity.
“I think that’s when I really started coming out of my shell with shooting the ball,” she said. “I love to pass, and everyone knows it — in practice everyone plays my pass and I commit a lot of turnovers — but (Campbell has) really wanted me to step up in the scoring column, and I think (that) weekend is when I really started to take initiative in the post.”
Benham has averaged 16.0 points and 6.0 rebounds in the five games beginning with that weekend, leading the Colonels three times in scoring and once in rebounds. But she said it doesn’t matter to her or her teammates who is getting the job done on a given night.
“You never know who you’re going to rely on. One night they may decide to shut down the guards and the post has to take over, and one night they may shut down the post and the guards have to take over,” she said. “No matter who it is, our team supports our style of play, and we don’t care who scores just as long as we get the ‘W.’”