ND's Benz pulls double duty as student manager/player

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Nobody in Notre Dame women’s basketball executes the transition game quite like Nicole Benz.

The sophomore can shift from student manager to practice player in a blink, and unlike Superman, doesn’t even need a phone booth to make the switch.

Benz — who also has gotten into 19 games over the last two seasons — was pulling double duty again Saturday, out in the Purcell Pavilion arena before anybody else, meticulously tending to an assortment of humble tasks in preparation for the team’s morning practice.

Then she was expected to become a necessary on-court piece during the workout.

With the men’s practice players away on winter break and with injuries hitting the No. 2-ranked Irish hard — Katlyn Gilbert and Kaitlin Cole are out for the season, and Danielle Patterson is out at least through Sunday — Benz is likely to see more action than usual during workouts over the next few weeks.

“I’m a hybrid, I guess. I can kind of do it all,” Benz acknowledged shortly before practice started. “I wear many hats.”

“She is,” coach Muffet McGraw said with a laugh of whether Benz, given all the guard’s other duties, is ND’s most versatile player.

Benz’s level of versatility may be exceeded only by her level of gratitude at the chance.

“To be a part of this program is literally a dream come true,” the Los Angeles area native said. “I would like to stay and help all four years regardless of what role I would have. It’s such a great group of people to be around who are all excellent at what they do. I can learn a lot from that, whether it’s basketball-wise or something else.”

Benz, beloved by teammates, has long loved both basketball and Notre Dame.

“My dad went to Notre Dame High School out by us, played football there, so I grew up thinking my dad played Notre Dame football — obviously, it’s not the same thing at all, it’s one of many Notre Dame high schools — but that kind of magic was always there for me,” Benz said, “and then when I visited here my senior year of high school, I absolutely fell in love with the campus, the people, and I was so excited when I got in.

“It was a big jump going from California to these South Bend winters,” Benz added, “but it’s such a great place with such a strong sense of community, great academics and great sports traditions. It’s literally all I could ask for in a place.”

A computer science major in ND’s College of Engineering, it might seem Benz would have little time or need for things like doing teammates’ laundry, inflating basketballs, filling water bottles, laying out mouth guards, making copies of practice plans, taking food orders for away trips, packing uniforms — just a small sampling of things she and the other managers actually do — but she doesn’t view any of it as beneath her.

“It’s behind-the-scenes stuff, which I think is pretty cool,” Benz said, “kind of just all the little things you only notice if they’re not done correctly. It’s kind of taught me a lot about attention to detail, and I think it’s a lot of fun.”

That fun was triggered when she was one of about a dozen students who answered a call-out for potential walk-on players in September of 2017.

Benz, an All-California Interscholastic Association second-teamer out of Hart High School in Santa Clarita, was not originally among the two individuals chosen to join the Irish from the walk-on tryouts, those spots instead going to Cole and Maureen Butler, but the exposure did open another door.

“I knew they had a really cool student manager program for women’s basketball,” Benz said. “I just went to the tryouts because I was a freshman hoping to get involved in something. I was hoping it would let me meet (director of team operations) Katie Capps and help me connect as a student manager. So I went and had a great time, but I never thought it would lead to any of this.”

“This” began with Benz indeed being added to a student-manager group that numbers seven.

Then, to her shock, it morphed into her becoming a practice player due to a trio of Irish scholarship players all being sidelined by injuries.

“It was the week before finals last year,” Benz recalled Saturday being asked to practice with the team. “I was coming back from math class and got a text from Katie Capps saying, ‘Nicole, can you stop by the office? Coach has a question for you?’

“I’d never been inside Coach’s office before, so I’m thinking like, ‘Oh, my gosh, did I do something wrong? What did I do?’ Then she just said with all the injuries we’ve had, she’d really like another person to help out, suit up, and I don’t even remember what I said. I think I said, ‘It would be such a great honor and thank you for the opportunity.’ I honestly don’t remember anything after that. I just kind of blanked out.”

It soon got even more chilling for Benz.

On Jan. 3, three days after Lili Thompson became the fourth ND scholarship player to suffer a season-ending knee injury, Benz was added to the active roster.

She got into 13 games for the eventual national champs, too, averaging 2.1 minutes, and when she scored her only basket of the season, a 3-pointer with 37 seconds left for the final count in a 94-62 victory over North Carolina on Feb. 1, jubilant All-American teammate Arike Ogunbowale hoisted Benz skyward as the rest of the team also celebrated.

The scene was somewhat similar on Nov. 17 when Benz scored the basket that allowed the Irish to crack 100 in their 101-77 win at DePaul.

Though it came with the contest long decided, it sparked the loudest reaction of the day from the bench.

“She does everything for us,” junior Jackie Young explained at the time of the players’ response to Benz’s basket. “It’s just so great to see her out there and get a bucket.”

“It’s so incredible when I do get into games at the end,” Benz said. “The bench is always like, ‘Nicole, you can do this.’ They’re really encouraging, really excited. It’s such a cool opportunity, one I never thought I’d have, and then these amazing basketball players and amazing people are cheering me on from the sideline. That’s pretty special.”

It’s a special that works both ways.

“She’s a great teammate,” McGraw said Saturday of Benz. “The girls love having her around. She cares nothing about herself, only about what she can do to help them.”

The plan initially this season was to have Benz return to strictly managerial duties, but with the injuries continuing, she’s gotten into six games and scored six points.

“Right from the beginning, we told her, ‘We might need you, we might not,’” McGraw said, “and she’s like, ‘I’ll do whatever. I’ll help with practice as a manager or I can practice.’ She’s changed her plans so many times. She was suppose to go home for Thanksgiving, but we needed her (at the Vancouver Showcase), so she came with us. Same thing over Christmas now. We’ve changed her flights and gotten her to stay, because we need her.”

Benz is able to help the team in practice without necessarily needing plentiful reps.

“She’s very smart,” McGraw said. “She never has to run through things. She understands the offense without even running through it, and she just gives 100 percent to the team every single minute she’s out here.”

No matter what role she’s serving.

“I’ve been suiting up again this season, which is really cool, but I also love being a manager,” Benz said. “I kind of get the best of both worlds.”

A couple grand

Ogunbowale enters Sunday’s home game against Binghamton (5-5) needing seven points to reach 2,000 in her Notre Dame career.

The senior guard, sixth in the nation this season at 24.0 per game, would become the fifth player in program history to crack two grand.

She’s on pace to pass all-time leader Skylar Diggins (2,357) more than five games before the regular season is over. Standing in between are current Irish assistant Beth (Morgan) Cunningham (2,322), Katryna Gaither (2,126) and Ruth Riley (2,072).

Notre Dame’s Nicole Benz shoots over North Carolina’s Leah Church last February in South Bend.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: Binghamton (5-5) vs. No. 2 Notre Dame (8-1).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149), Notre Dame.

WHEN: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TICKETS: Available, $5 to $15.

RADIO: Pulse (103.1 / 96.9 / 92.1 FM).

WEB: ACCN Extra.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: Notre Dame and Binghamton, in New York state, are meeting for the first time. The game also marks the first time the Bearcats have ever faced a defending national champion, and just the second time in their 18-year Division I history they’ll face any ranked opponent (they lost 70-65 to No. 24 Hartford in February 2010). They meet still another one Monday when they visit No. 19 Marquette. … Binghamton is led by 5-9 senior forward Rebecca Carmody, averaging 14.0 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. Kai Moon is next at 11.5 points, but the junior guard has missed the last four games due to a foot injury. Carly Boland, a 6-1 junior guard, is averaging 9.6 points and 1.5 blocks. Sophomores Olivia Ramil and Lizzy Spindler are at 8.3 and 7.0 points, respectively, with Spindler converting 18-of-34 on 3-pointers for 53 percent. … The Bearcats, 0-3 on the road, are in their first season under Bethann Shapiro Ord, who arrived after going 57-41 over three years at Weber State. … Irish leaders are Arike Ogunbowale (24.0 points, 3.6 assists, 1.7 steals), Jackie Young (17.4 points, 4.8 assists), Jessica Shepard (16.4 points, 10.0 rebounds), Brianna Turner (12.8 points, 7.9 rebounds) and Marina Mabrey (12.3 points). … At halftime, the ND marketing department will stage its inaugural baby race. Up to 10 competitors ages 12 months and younger are expected to compete. The winner receives a year’s supply of diapers. Also, a canned-food collection will be staged on behalf of St. Vincent de Paul and Irish players will sign autographs after the game at Heritage Hall.

QUOTING: “We want to feel good at the end of the game, like ‘We really played well today.’ I don’t think we felt that after Toledo (last Saturday). I don’t feel like we’re playing real great together, but we’ve had some really good practices and I’m making some changes in the offense, trying to get a little more rhythm, a little more motion, and I think that looks good. Defensively, it’s still kind of up to them, how much they’re gonna want to play defense. I’m still hoping that improves.” — Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw on Sunday’s game against Binghamton.