STORRS, March 21 – From the moment she stepped on the Gampel Pavilion hardwood Saturday night, Canton’s Sarah Benedetti had a smile on her face. It was the first round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament and Benedetti and her St. Francis Brooklyn teammates were facing the defending national champions Connecticut on national television (ESPN).
Dozens of friends, family and fans from Canton filled an upper section of Gampel Pavilion and they were a vocal group with several signs of support for the 2011 Canton High graduate.
“This is a dream come true,” she said earlier this week. “As a younger kid, I always watched UConn. I grew up watching them. How cool would it be to play on UConn’s floor or play against UConn. If someone were to tell me at the beginning of my college career that you would be finishing as a senior at Gampel Pavilion playing UConn, I would have never believed it.”
Benedetti was St. Francis’ best player Saturday night in a 89-33 loss to the Huskies. For most of the game, she had half of her team’s points. She finished with a team-high 13 points, including 3-of-9 from three-point range. She had a block, a steal and scored a hook shot over Kiah Stokes in the second half. Benedetti hit her first shot of the game, a deep three-pointer with just 1:26 gone in the contest.
“I knew Gampel was a great atmosphere to play in and this NCAA tournament game was exactly what I expected,” Benedetti said. “I knew UConn fans would be lively and it was nice to have the support of my family and friends back home from Canton who came to the game. Regardless of the outcome, I had such a great time and it was an enjoyable experience that I will remember forever.”
Auriemma was impressed with the effort of Benedetti and the Terriers (15-19), who were the only team in the NCAA tournament with a losing record.
“They stayed with what they were doing and they kept doing it, kept working at it. Every time they were successful, they lit up and enjoyed and then they wanted to do it again,” Auriemma said. “That is what makes a competitor. They fight and try to play their best even though they know the deck is stacked against them. I enjoyed watching them play.”
Auriemma also had a few words of encouragement for Benedetti afterward. “He gave me a big hug and he was making a joke about how far back I shoot from, saying they should be worth four points because of them are so far back,” Benedetti said. “He is such a nice man, a great coach and has a nice team.”
Auriemma met with Benedetti later in the evening before the Terriers left Gampel Pavilion. Benedetti had her photo taken with Auriemma at a camp ten years ago when she was 11. They updated the photo Saturday night and chatted for a few minutes.
“I’ve never had one of my kids or teams we play against shoot from where she shoots it from,” Auriemma said of Benedetti’s long-range three-point shots. “My kids were coming over to the bench and saying, coach, should we contest that. At first, I said yes. Then I said, forget it. If you’re going to take those shots, god bless you. I hope they go in. And then the son-of-a-gun knocked in a couple and threw in a hook shot over somebody.”
And he chuckled and smiled.
It was the final game of Benedetti’s collegiate career. She started three of four years with St. Francis, coming off the bench during her junior year. She made a living sinking three-point shots. Bendetti has sunk 280 three-point shots in her Terrier career – a school record and has three of the top five single season three-point shooting records at St. Francis.
Bendetti, who averaged a career-high 14.2 points a game this year, was the MVP of the Northeast Conference tournament when she sank a career-high 29 points in the win over Robert Morris a week ago.
Scoring on her first shot of the game helped Benedetti melt away the nervousness that sat in her belly.
“It helps when the first one goes in,” she said. “I was excited. I wanted to see what I could do against UConn and what our team could do. It was fun.”
The ovation for Benedetti was loud when she was introduced.
“I was feeling the love,” she said. “Canton (residents) have sent me countless messages about folks who couldn’t come. It feels so awesome to know there are so many people supporting you. It was so cool to look up and see my family and friends, see all the support we had from Brooklyn, from Ohio (where some of the Terriers live). No matter what the outcome was, I had an awesome time. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
And the smile never left her face. “I was trying to take this all in,” Benedetti said. “There are so many athletes that would kill and dream to be in the NCAA tournament. To have that be a reality to me is such an amazing feat that many people don’t get to experience.”
Bendetti is on track to graduate this spring with a degree in political science. She hopes to play some basketball in Europe if she gets a chance.
NOTES: St. Francis Brooklyn coach John Thurston is now in his third season as head coach of the Terriers. He has 42 years of experience coaching men’s and women’s basketball. When he came to St. Francis, he remembered a performance by Benedetti at a travel team tournament in Washington, D.C.
“I first saw Sarah at a travel team tournament in Washington D.C., I was at Fordham as an assistant. I was going to the bathroom and the furthest court away from the action really where the low level teams played — and you had to walk past that court to get to the bathroom,” Thurston said. “As I was going by, I saw this girl take a 40 foot shot. I thought it was halftime, it wasn’t it was just part of the game… so I sat there and I watched the whole game. She had 44 points. I’m looking around and I’m saying `Where are the other coaches?’ Because there were probably around five or six hundred coaches in the building. The great fortune was that none of them had to go to the bathroom at the time. So I was at Fordham and I left at the end of that summer to go to St. Francis and when we had a scholarship open I remembered that performance that I saw from Sarah.”
An additional note, Benedetti holds the Canton High girls record for most points in a single game. She had 44 points with four 3-point shots in a win over Platt Tech of Milford in the 2010 Class S tournament.