Typically, this time of the year, HBCU basketball programs are road warriors, traveling the nation to play and get pounded by non-conference Division I programs. That hasn’t been the case for Florida A&M. Antonia Bennett is seeing to that.
Bennett, a 6-foot-1 senior guard/forward, has started fast. She is first in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in scoring (19.6 ppg), fourth in rebounding (8.9 rpg) and third in blocks (1.7bpg). Her efforts have helped the Lady Rattlers to a 8-5 start, and they are currently riding a five game winning streak. Among their victories are ones against Southern Mississippi, Northwestern Louisiana, Southeastern Louisiana and Austin Peay.
This start is due largely to Bennett, who has stepped up in her role as a leader of a very young team.
“And I still feel like we dropped a few we should not have dropped,” LeDawn Gibson, FAMU head coach, said. “We’re young. On the back end, we have six freshmen we are trying to rotate in and get their feet wet.
“(Bennett) has been very consistent. I remember one game I told her we needed more rebounds and she ended up with a double-double (24 points, 14 rebounds against Northwestern Louisiana). She listens and takes heed to direction. She loves what she is doing. She loves the game. Even now when we have an off day, you will see her in the gym shooting, working on her ball handling and her game.”
Bennett has a greater appreciation for what she has since it was taken away from her for a large part of the past two seasons. She had a couple of setbacks with the fractured ankle her sophomore year. Then last year, her junior season, she was on her way to a strong season when she hurt her ankle in the first 30 seconds of the Hampton game. That injury caused her to miss five games. She returned for the MEAC tournament but in a reserve roll. Still she managed to put up double digit scoring efforts.
“She just wants to win,” Gibson said. “When you find somebody who wants to win, they are going to give 100 percent all the time. She’s done some rehab and, knock on wood, she hasn’t gotten hurt. That’s a big part of it, too. She did hurt it early this year in open gym. She was finally where she was healthy and doing well and then she hurt herself. Now she’s back on that positive mode.”
Gibson has asked a lot of Bennett and so far, she’s delivered – sore ankle and all.
“I’m still rehabbing for the ankle,” Bennett said. “But I don’t let that bother me. I don’t use that as a crutch or an excuse. I’m just trying to win and to go out on top. That’s my main focus.
“We’ve got a great recruiting class. The freshmen have come in here and have been buying into what the coaches are saying. They’re doing their share. Our transfers have come in and done well. I think this is the best group since I have been here. And we’re just trying to run with it and just take advantage of this year. I have to be an example for them. To make sure they are doing what they need to do.”
And at the same time putting up big numbers, ones she is oblivious to as they come in the flow of the game. More important to her than her own numbers are those of her opponent.
“I know a double-double was in there somewhere, but I don’t pay attention to the stats,” said Bennett. “I am more interested in what the other team’s players have and what we gave up (defensively), and what we need to improve on as far as like our free throws and turnovers and stuff like that.”
That mindset is indicative of growth, Gibson said. She has known Bennett since her prep days and the relationship wasn’t always as smooth as it is now. Both are headstrong. Ultimately Gibson got her way once she appealed to Bennett from a perspective of respect.
“When she first got here she was so stubborn,” said Gibson. “She knew everything. It was, ‘My way, or no way.’ She finally converted to keeping an open mind. We had a little talk after her freshman year and she’s grown a lot since then. A lot. She’s just open to listening. She does what you tell her to do and she takes direction well.
“We both are Aquarius. She respects me and I respect her. I think that has a lot to do with it. I’m not a yelling coach. I like to talk to them and tell them what they are doing wrong. She likes that. She’s not one of those players who you can just yell at. She’ll respond better to that than for me to call her out in front of the whole team. If I do (call her out), it shuts her down, breaks her down. But if you call her over and talk, and just try to explain it to her, she’s more into that. She will get things done.”
That means off the court as well. She is carrying a 3.0 grade point average in Criminal Justice. She has the respect of teammates and fellow students on campus alike.
“She just a great kid,” said Bennett. “She’s a leader and she leads by example. She’s good in the classroom. Everybody in the school knows her. She’s like a big superstar on campus. She’s just well liked by all her peers. I haven’t heard anything negative about her. Everyone likes hanging around her. She’s not one of those outgoing people. She likes to sit around a TV with friends. Kind of laid back. Just a good kid. I’m happy for her and hopes she keeps this going.”