The top three-point shooter in WSU basketball history — a guy who has 1,451 career points and received All Horizon League first team honors this season — Benzinger had an uncharacteristically abysmal time of it against the Vols, making just two of 16 shots from the floor and one of nine from three-point range to finish with a season-low five points.
“This was the worst day to have one of those days,” he said in the Raiders dressing room afterwards. “That’s probably the worst I shot it all year.”
And yet, Benzinger – “the heartbeat of our team all year,” Coach Scott Nagy said after the game — didn’t hang back, slump or change who he was as the game wore on.
That was clear with just 4:30 left and his team trailing by 21 points.
Suddenly there was a loose ball near midcourt and Benzinger dove head first for it, hitting the floor as hard as Pete Rose ever went belly first into third base.
As soon as he crashed landed on the wooden playing surface, he felt it.
“Right away I knew it had busted open again,” Benzinger said.
He had torn his side open in on another dive in late December against UIC at the Nutter Center. That had left him with a gaping hole in his side that required five stitches.
This time, he got up, ran a hand down to his right side, then looked toward the Raiders bench. He started to motion, then thought better of it, waved off the acknowledgement and returned to the action.
Some 30 seconds later there was a time out and he was on the sideline, Benzinger was attended to by head trainer Jason Franklin and team physician Dr. Matt Lawless.
“When I went down and looked at it, it was probably two inches wide,” Nagy said of Benzinger’s wound.
While that would have been enough to sideline anybody, Benzinger is not your typical player. He’s like that old daredevil Evel Knievel whose body was held together by stitches and gumption and grit.
Freshman year Benzinger was kicked in the head in a game and needed stitches to close his eyebrow. As a sophomore his lip was split by an elbow and needed needle and thread, as well.
His first three years as a Raider he suffered bursitis in both elbows and a knee from all that diving and regularly needed the fluid to be drained off each joint. This past fall he underwent hernia surgery, missed the whole preseason and played 31 minutes in the opening game against Loyola.
“At first today they were just going to take me to the locker room and call it a day,” Benzinger said Thursday. “But I wanted to play the last four minutes. I wanted to finish on the court and then they said they could suture it right there on the bench.
Franklin said it was an effort “so he could go back in one more time.”
After the game he got four stitches.
Benzinger wasn’t the only Raider who struggled on offense Thursday.
Junior guard Mark Hughes was 1 for 7 from the floor, freshman Jaylon Hall was 1 for 6.
Loudon Love – the Raiders 6-foot 9 center who was the Horizon League Freshman of the Year – was in foul trouble in the first half and played just 10 minutes. By the time he was able to return – and he eventually would lead the Raiders with 12 points and nine rebounds – the tone of the game was long set.
The Raiders were outrebounded 44-32 and shot just 31.7 percent from the floor, their second worst percentage all year.
The 47 points were their lowest output of the season.
Although Benzinger said the Vols had some bigger athletes than the Raiders usually face and they play a disciplined defense, he said he had plenty of open looks.
“I’ve got to take responsibility for it,” he said. “I guess I didn’t get in the gym enough or didn’t sleep enough. I don’t know. So many things are going through my head…You’ve just got to make those shots if you want to win the game and I didn’t.”
Love felt for Benzinger: “It’s hard to see him play his last college game like that. But whether it’s been emotionally or shooting the ball, he carried this team almost all year.”
Freshman Everett Winchester, who had 11 points, agreed: “Without him, we wouldn’t have been here… Today, when he missed one time, he had a smile on his face and said, ‘The next one has to fall.’”
Benzinger shrugged: “I think I said that the whole second half.”
Just before Nagy took over the job a year ago from Billy Donlon, Benzinger asked for his release from the program. He got it, but soon changed his mind and became the heart and soul of the team.
“I’m so happy I stayed,” he said. “Coach came in and I love him to death. I’m so happy now. I’m a Raider for life now.”
And while he said he’ll especially remember this 25-10 season, he had different thoughts about the NCAA Tournament.
“This is gonna sound bad, but I’m not going to have a good time remembering this. It probably will not be a good memory because of the way it went down.”
Maybe he’ll be surprised.
Maybe the memory will heal just like his side.