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‘Spark plug’ Bendu Yeaney is having fun again at Arizona

Mike Mattina/Arizona Athletics

Bendu Yeaney is having fun again and loving every second of it.

Those are her words, not mine. She tweeted them Thursday just hours after Arizona blew out ASU 65-37.

Yeaney made her first start as a Wildcat that night and was instrumental in the win. She buried a 3 from the wing for Arizona’s first points and made a countless number of hustle plays that set the tone in a dominant defensive effort.

“It was fun,” Yeaney said once more. “My coaches believe in me to start (me), so it was just fun to be able to start with my teammates and they’re leaving me open because they know I’m a driver, so I’m just knocking down shots.”

Basketball wasn’t so fun for Yeaney last season as a junior at Indiana. She rushed back from a torn Achilles that she suffered in the final game of her sophomore season and didn’t feel right in the six games she appeared in before transferring.

She also couldn’t buy a bucket, going 0 for 2 from 3 after shooting just 10 for 49 as a sophomore. Teams went so far as to stop guarding her on the perimeter. That made her confidence plummet even further.

Now, almost two years removed from surgery, she feels like her old self aside from “little aches and pains here and there.”

“Me playing last year, I just didn’t have fun because I just rushed everything,” Yeaney said. “And now that I’m able to settle down and kind of look back at everything that I’ve been through, it’s just fun to be able to be on the court and be with girls that have my back like I have theirs and a coaching staff that really trusts me and believes in me. ... I’m just able to be myself and have fun. I don’t have to think about too much while I’m on the court. It’s just about playing.”

That means not being afraid to let it fly.

Arizona coach Adia Barnes implores Yeaney to shoot any time she is open. Because if she can just knock down one or two 3s a game, it opens up the offense by spacing the floor for drivers like Aari McDonald and Shaina Pellington and posts like Cate Reese and Trinity Baptiste.

It’s no coincidence that Arizona had its most prolific night of the season after Yeaney opened the game with a 3.

“She’s like I don’t care if you miss, just shoot the ball,” Yeaney said. “You can shoot the ball 100 times, I don’t care. She’s like you’re going to make some of them so if shoot 100 times you going to make some of them, so just keep shooting. And that’s just giving me more confidence to shoot and you see in it games. I’m not hesitating with my shots. I’m putting them up and I’m knocking some down.”

Yeaney is 3 for 9 (33.3%) from 3-point land this season. She doesn’t have a target percentage in mind. She just wants to shoot better than she did the past two years.

“I want people to actually, you know, guard me on the 3-point line and know that I’m a threat from there,” she said.

Barnes recruited Yeaney when she was an eighth grader and remembers when Yeaney was so strong and athletic that she didn’t need a jump shot to be successful. She could just drive by her defender for a layup.

That doesn’t work in college, especially coming off a torn Achilles. Yeaney thought about that during her recovery and knew she had to work on her jumper.

“I didn’t change my shooting form or anything,” she said. “It’s just I’m used to my hand now because I broke my hand after my freshman year, so now I’m used to my hand shooting the same way. But it’s just a lot of 3-point shots, just getting up 300 to 500 3-point shots a day, trying to make at least half of those and just be consistent and not pass up over shots during practice when I have them.”

Of course, Yeaney’s value isn’t tied totally to her 3-point shooting. It’s her ability to do that and a lot more. She is fourth on the Wildcats in rebounds, third in blocks, third in steals, and second in assists.

She’s had as many as 11 points, seven rebounds and four assists in a game this season.

“I think I bring a lot of energy, I think I bring a lot of different things each game,” she said. “It just depends on what they need from me that game. Sometimes they need scoring, like in the UCLA game you saw that I scored a little bit. Other times they just need a defensive presence and some energy. ... I think I bring a lot of things to the table, it just depends on what team we’re playing and I’m just ready for anything. Whatever they ask me to do, I’ll do it.”

That kind of flexibility makes Barnes’ job a lot easier because she’s not the kind of coach that sticks to a starting lineup just for the sake of consistency. She likes to make changes based on matchups.

“She’s just one of those glue kids,” Barnes said. “So if I told her she starts tomorrow, she’s happy. If I told her she comes off the bench, she’s happy and grateful. So she’s kind of like, ‘whatever role I play coach, I just want to win.’ And that’s what I love about her and I saw her tweet after where she was like she’s finally having fun again. Winning is fun, but I love the fact that in this program, she came here and she has her love of basketball back. That makes me feel good because the experience of the student-athletes is one of the most important things. You’re supposed to love it, you’re supposed to have fun. I mean, life is hard. Basketball should be a fun part and basketball should be something you love and it should be an outlet.”

Barnes didn’t know what to expect from Yeaney this season since she hardly played last year. At one point, Barnes was even considering redshirting her so she could have another year to recover from her injury.

But Barnes has been impressed so far and believes Yeaney and the team are only scratching the surface of what they will be.

“She hasn’t even played her best basketball,” Barnes said. “She’s just getting healthy...so she’s just kind of working back into things, but she’s a spark plug for us. She brings energy, she gets so many hustle plays, I know you guys have seen it. She’ll sneak in for offensive rebounds and get an and-one. She’ll make a tough play, cause a turnover, she’ll get a great deflection. So she does all the things I really value. I think the chemistry between her and Aari and Sam (Thomas) and Trinity and Cate has been great. So I think that we’re just meshing. You will see us look very different in January and February than you do now just because of game experience and time to work together.”

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