After averaging 10.7 points per game during a campaign in which she was named to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference All-Rookie Team, more was expected this season from Siena College women's basketball sophomore guard Jackie Benitez.
That was reflected before the season, when Benitez landed a third-team All-MAAC preseason selection -- an honor Benitez has responded to with play worthy of a first-team spot.
"One thing about Jackie is that she's matured a lot," Siena head coach Ali Jaques said after her team's overtime loss to the University at Albany on Sunday. "Only being a sophomore, she's a pretty mature player."
A productive one, too. Heading into tonight's MAAC opener against Fairfield at home, Benitez is averaging a conference-leading 24.3 points per game. Before games were played Wednesday across the country, Benitez was tied for fourth in the nation in scoring and was tied for first in 3-point makes per game at 5.0.
"She's so focused on her shot this year," junior guard Kollyns Scarbrough said. "Every shot she takes, it's calculated. It's meticulous."
Scarbrough -- who has backed up her preseason first-team All-MAAC selection with per-game averages of 13.5 points and 5.3 rebounds -- said Benitez has improved the speed of her shot release since last season, and that the sophomore better uses picks from her teammates to create room to shoot. Playing within the Siena offense, Benitez is shooting 44.6 percent overall from the field and is actually shooting better from 3-point territory at 48.8 percent.
"That's what we need her to do," Jaques said Sunday. "That's what we need her to be for us."
Like her coach, Scarbrough credited Benitez for showing increased composure and maturity as a sophomore. That showed Sunday in Benitez's response to missing the second of three much-needed late-game free throws for Siena during overtime.
"I just had to focus and make the third one," Benitez said was what went through her mind after that miss.
And, she did.
With tonight's 7 p.m. matchup against Fairfield (3-3), Siena (1-3) starts league play with a pair of tough games over the span of three days. Following tonight's home game, the Saints travel to Quinnipiac (4-1) on Saturday.
"This is where it counts," Scarbrough said.
Through four non-conference games, Siena has found ways to prepare itself for what's to come this season. The losing, though, has hurt.
"If I'm being honest, it's tough sitting here 1-3 right now," Jaques said Tuesday. "But I'm tough and we're gritty -- and we're going to be OK."
Out of Siena's opponents this season, Jaques compared Fairfield to Colgate -- the team Siena beat -- because of its scrappiness on defense and diverse offensive game. Three Fairfield players are averaging at least 11.3 points per game.
"We definitely have to emphasize [defending] all their shooters," Scarbrough said.
Through four games, Siena is allowing its opponents 83.3 points per game.
"Drives me crazy," Jaques said.
But what's keeping the coach sane is the knowledge that her team is also playing an up-tempo style, which leads to games with more possessions and more points. After all, Siena is averaging 74.5 points per game itself -- and its opponents are shooting a reasonable 44.3 percent from the field.
Still, Jaques said her team needs to start playing defense with the same enthusiasm it does offense.
"Turning that into an energy on defense and a commitment on defense can be hard sometimes, [but it's] not impossible," Jaques said, "and it's going to be something we take care of."