When Bendu Yeaney transferred to Arizona, she was coming off two injury-shortened seasons at Indiana. Always known as a hard-nosed defender, she was a good fit for the Wildcats’ defense-first identity. Early in her senior season, she’s showing that she’s more than the athletic stopper on the defensive end of the court.
It’s no surprise to Arizona head coach Adia Barnes. Last year, Yeaney spent some time shaking off the rust after healing from an Achilles rupture, but Barnes has seen her entire game transform since she landed in Tucson.
“I think as the season progressed (last year), she got better, but I think she’s just coming into a significant role (this year) and she’s worked to improve,” Barnes said. “So I think that she’s worked on her shot. She’s worked on her handles, and she’s playing with a lot of confidence. She’s playing at a really high level. I believe last year, people didn’t guard her because they didn’t really have to, but you got to guard her this year.”
As to “coming into a significant role,” Yeaney hit the big shots down the stretch that lifted Arizona to a victory over then-No. 6 Louisville. It also lifted Arizona to the No. 11 position in the AP poll. There’s a simple reason for that expanded role.
“Aari (McDonald) hasn’t played with us for three games,” Yeaney said prior to Friday’s victory over Marist College.
Barnes made it clear that she didn’t expect any individual player to step in and make up for the 20 points a game that McDonald contributed. She needed everyone to take on just a little bit more this season—score just a few more points, dish out an extra assist, grab just a couple more steals or rebounds. Yeaney is a prime example of taking that task to heart.
Over the first four games, Yeaney has scored in double digits twice. Those big nights came in crucial situations. The first was the eye-opening win over Louisville. The second, against Marist College, came in a game where the opponent came out stronger at tip-off than the Wildcats did.
The Red Foxes led at the end of the first quarter and were just 10 points behind at the half. Without strong early performances by Yeaney and Sam Thomas, it would have been a much taller order for Arizona.
In her best year at Indiana, Yeaney averaged 9.7 points per game. Last season for Arizona, that dropped to 4.1 ppg. So far this year, she’s bumped that back up to 7.5 ppg despite only playing more than 19 minutes once.
Much of that increase comes from an improved 3-point shot. Yeaney shot just 24.2 percent from outside during the Wildcats’ Final Four season. During her sophomore year in Bloomington, she hit 21.1 percent of those shots.
She has proven that she can hit the 3 in the past. In her freshman campaign with the Hoosiers, Yeaney connected on 28 of 71 shots from beyond the arc for a 39.4 percent shooting percentage. So far this season, she’s pushed that to 50 percent despite going 1 for 6 against Louisville. That number arises from her 4-for-4 outside shooting in the last two games.
“I just got a lot of shots this summer with my trainer and we just worked on things that I wasn’t confident in, and now my shot is feeling good and I’m confident in it,” Yeaney said.
Yeaney is also taking on a bigger role as a distributor on a team that has a lot of shooters this season. At Indiana, she averaged 2.1 assists per game. Last season, that fell to 1.5 apg, but she has moved her way towards the top of the leaderboards for the Wildcats this season. Yeaney has had fewer than three assists only once this season.
She averages three assists per contest against 1.5 turnovers. That ratio is a big improvement over last season when her 1.5 assists were offset by 1.2 turnovers per game. That pleases her even more than the improved shooting.
“I‘m always a pass-first player,” Yeaney said. “I think I let the game come to me. I like to have my teammates score. And then, I just hit open shots and things like that. So I always like to pass the ball. I’d rather have like 10 assists and two points. I like to score, too, but I like to get my teammates involved.”
All of the offensive improvement doesn’t mean that her defense has gone by the wayside. Yeaney is still averaging 1.75 steals per game this season. That is a jump from last year, too, when she picked her opponents’ pockets 1.11 times per contest.
Just as it has for the past several years, the defense is quickly turning into offense for the Wildcats. So far this year, Yeaney is a major part of both.