FARMINGTON — Nykki Benally presents a tough matchup on the basketball court. And it's because the Piedra Vista senior guard can do it all.
In this season's first two games, Benally has averaged 22 points. She’s a consistent shooter with range beyond the 3-point line, but she’s at her best when attacking the basket.
“She’s not the tallest kid, she’s not the fastest kid, but what she does is she changes speed,” PV head coach Joe Reed said. “She can change speed, and it’s able to get her by people.”
Her ability to change speed gets her past the initial defender, where typically one of three things happens. She’ll either have an open layup, draw a foul and go to the free-throw line — where she converts 80 percent of her attempts — or find an open teammate for a clean look at the basket.
“What makes her deadly is her passing and vision. She’ll throw no-look passes, and if you’re not ready, you’ll eat it. The girls always know to get their hands up now," Reed said. "If she’s not open, she’ll find the open person and get the assist.”
As one of three seniors who were on last season's varsity team, Benally is a leader on the squad, and Reed said she's the face of the program.
The Lady Panthers implemented a full-court press this season. The move to a faster tempo on defense is aimed at helping PV score more by creating turnovers and giving the team a boost in a loaded District 1-5A.
“We’ve been working on the press all summer and all off-season, and ever since we started running it, everyone has liked it and is excited about it,” Benally said. “When we played Navajo Prep and saw how well it worked, it helped us a lot. Last year, we didn’t score a lot of points, but the press has really helped us score.”
Last season, PV averaged 44 points per game. This season, the Lady Panthers have scored 67 points in both games, beating Prep 67-35 and Pojoaque Valley 67-36.
Benally has done her part in making the press successful, serving as a vocal leader in practice.
“At practice, I just try to get them in the right spots, so then in the games maybe they’ll remember, ‘Oh, yeah. I remember Nykki yelling at me to get to the spot,’” Benally said.
That willingness to call out her teammates comes from Benally's desire to win.
“She’ll pull them aside and bark at them if she has to get them in the right spot, but the girls know it’s nothing personal and it’s about basketball,” Reed said. “She’s a fierce competitor, and she wants to win more than anyone I’ve known in my life.”
In the first round of last season’s district tournament, Benally took over the game in the fourth quarter.
She scored 13 points in the fourth, including the team’s final seven points — which came in the final minute — to help the Lady Panthers overcome a 10-point deficit in the final 2:24 and win 47-46.
The Lady Panthers carried the momentum from that win over Miyamura into the next round, where they topped Aztec. PV fell in the district semifinal game to Farmington, but the wins over Miyamura and Aztec were enough to steal the 16th and final seed in the 5A state tournament.
The Lady Panthers were bounced in the first round by No. 1 Gallup.
This season, Benally won’t be satisfied with just making the state tournament. She wants to advance and play at The Pit in Albuquerque.
“It would be exciting. I don’t know if I have the words to describe what it would be like to get to The Pit,” Benally said. “That’s one of my goals.”
But making the state quarterfinals and playing at The Pit isn’t where Benally’s desire ends.
“I’m trying to get it through all the girls’ heads that it’s my last year, and I want to make a run at The Pit,” she said. “And it’s not, ‘Oh, we made it.’ I want to win it.”
Karl Schneider is the sports editor for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4648.
A closer look: Nykki Benally
1. Favorite food?
2. Favorite movie?
“Maze Runner, the second one. I saw it (Sunday) night, and it was really good.”
3. Biggest fear?
“Probably losing one-on-one to my (11-year-old) brother. Since he can beat me now, that’s probably my biggest fear, and everyone laughing at me.”
4. Favorite and least favorite subjects in school?
“My favorite would be anatomy. I love science and going into athletic training is what I want to do. My least favorite right now would probably be math.”
5. Do you play any other sports?
6. First thing you’d do if you won $1 million?
“I’d buy a big, huge van so I could take my family everywhere, and we could go on long road trips.”
7. Favorite team?
8. Favorite athlete?
“Ever since I watched Tyus Jones last year, it would probably be Tyus Jones.”
9. Favorite book?
“The Guinness World Records book. I always try to break records, but it never works.”
10. Do you have any pregame rituals?
“Talking to my family and having a good time. Not being too serious anything.”