New game for former Los Banos standouts

Bennett, Harden adjust to reduced college roles

sports@losbanosenterprise.comJanuary 21, 2013 

Each fall, thousands of athletes descend on college campuses fresh off a career of high school sports glory.

But Joey Bennett and Brianna Harden, a pair of Los Banos graduates and current college freshmen, are finding out that earning an athletic scholarship is just the beginning of the story.

Bennett led Los Banos' boys basketball team to its first playoff victory in ages last season. Now a freshman at Notre Dame de Namur University, an NCAA Division II college in Belmont, he's averaging about five minutes per game for the Argonauts while adjusting to the speed of college basketball.

"At first I was really frustrated. It was tough for me to handle coming from high school when I never came out of the game," Bennett said. "But I know I'm a freshman and I know this is just the beginning, and I'm learning to adjust my game from high school to college. There's people older than me that went through the same thing.

"It's just my time to wait right now."

San Francisco State University freshman Harden has a similar story -- she led the Los Banos girls to the playoffs two years in a row as the team's anchor in the paint, and now averages about seven minutes per game for the NCAA Division II Gators.

"At first I was heartbroken. I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm not playing.' I've never experienced sitting on the bench the whole game," Harden said. "The first game, I didn't even play. I was asking, 'What am I doing wrong?' But now I know once (coach Joaquin Wallace) puts you on the court, you have to cherish every moment and play with so much intensity.

"If you do good in practice, he'll put you in. In the beginning of the season, I was screwing up in practice. Now I'm starting to get minutes."

Harden has compiled 16 points, 12 rebounds and three steals in eight games. Bennett has 24 points and 8 rebounds in 11 games (most recently he scored 8 points in 14 minutes during last Wednesday's 67-64 home win over Hawaii-Hilo).

The lifestyle in the city is as different as the playing style, if they can find the time to enjoy it. Belmont is a half-hour drive south of San Francisco, but Bennett, carrying the maximum 18 units, said he makes it there every few weeks. Harden is in class until late morning (on her way to the Dean's List), then every day but Sunday includes an hour in the weight room, two hours of practice and an hour of film work. After four hours of basketball, she's ready to eat and fall asleep.

"When they do give us days off, I feel weird," Harden said. "I don't know what to do."

The more aggressive college opponents have forced changes in the two players' games. Bennett routinely drove into the paint against high school players several inches taller than him. Now when he tries that, he'll find a 6-foot-10 center waiting to greet the freshman.

"I used to go to the basket no problem, now I have to stop and kick the ball out," Bennett said. "I've definitely worked on my jump shot more. I still attack the basket when I have my chances. It depends on what I feel I have to do."

Harden was usually the most aggressive player on the floor a year ago, but now her coach implores her to take it up a notch. Even her teammates were dubious.

"It was definitely hard to show them what I can do," she said. "I'm a freshmen, and they're like, 'OK she doesn't know what she's doing.' They pushed me around a little. You definitely have to get tough, because they will crush you."

Both players have seen their games improve by leaps and bounds -- mostly in the mental game, the basketball smarts. But they're both enjoying the ride. Bennett recently returned from a week-long trip to play Hawaii-Hilo, BYU-Hawaii and Hawaii Pacific (the Argonauts went 2-1 on the trip).

"That hit me when I got there that I'm playing college basketball right now," Bennett said. "It was hot. It was in the 80s, so it was weird. Here I'm in pants and a sweatshirt."

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