Before warmups began, before she even dribbled a basketball, Nicole Benz was already breathless.
Walking onto the court in a Notre Dame jersey in front of a sellout crowd of nearly 20,000 people at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio on Sunday, Nicole Benz couldn’t help but be awestruck ahead of the NCAA Women’s National Championship game.
“Getting an inside look at what the Final Four is like … that’s what you dream about as a kid,” Benz, a Hart girls basketball product, said. “Getting to be a part of it and the culture and spirit of it is incredible.”
Benz, a freshman at Notre Dame, started out as a manager for the team. But after a string of injuries diminished the Irish in January, she was given the chance to suit up for a game.
Three months later, she watched teammate Arike Ogunbowale hit a jump shot to beat Mississippi State 61-58 for the national title.
“It was confusing because the refs kept reviewing it,” Benz said of the shot, which was originally perceived as a buzzer-beater.
“We were celebrating but we wanted to make sure that the shot was good. We had to defend for .1 seconds, but we had some time to process it and then celebrate again.”
Back home in the Santa Clarita Valley, the Hart girls basketball coaching staff and players eagerly followed Benz’s journey through the tournament.
Due to superstition, coach Terra Palmer never texted Benz good luck, but was always ready with a congratulatory message after each win.
“I don’t know if I’ve been this happy since my son was born,” Palmer said. “…You kind of feel like you’re there because part of you is there. I can’t even express my excitement for her.”
Although Benz has scored just three points for the Fighting Irish in her short tenure, the benefits of being on the nation’s No. 1 team have overshadowed any statistical category she could be listed in.
“I think there’s a really strong culture of resilience and rolling with the punches,” she said. “…With all the injuries, it’s easy to focus on what you left (behind), but all the leaders wanted us to focus on what we still do have.”
Hart girls basketball finished tied for third place in the Foothill League this season and lost to Duarte in the first round of the CIF-Southern Section Division 2A tournament.
The way the Indians see it, though, their program’s success continued in the form of Benz’s experience.
“We didn’t do anything to get her there except for love her,” Palmer said. “It’s just an exciting thing and I’ve been telling the kids and I mean this, it’s very sincere, dreams come true. You know somebody. You can reach out and touch somebody who has a story.”