Friday, March 31, 2017

Arizona native Benson hoping to continue winning ways in Glendale

GLENDALE — Oregon’s Casey Benson has already won three basketball championships in Glendale.

As a four-year varsity player at Tempe’s Corona del Sol High School, he won three-straight Division I state championships in 2012, 2013 and 2014 at Gila River Arena.

This weekend, he will try to make it four titles in Glendale, but now he will be across the street at University of Phoenix Stadium playing in the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four. The Ducks are hoping to win their firstc hampionship since 1939 – the first year it was held.

“It feels pretty comfortable,” Benson said Thursday at University of Phoenix Stadium. “Obviously the Final Four is on a much bigger stage than the Arizona state championships, but taking that experience and knowing it was right next door, looking to try to win a fourth one in Glendale.”

Benson is hoping to add to his impressive combined record of 121-13 in games played in Arizona over his high school and collegiate basketball career in Oregon’s national semifinal matchup Saturday against North Carolina.

“He’s the type of player that flourishes on a big stage so he will take it all in (Saturday) and I think he will be fine with it and he will relish in it,” said Sam Duane Jr., who was Benson’s coach at Corona. “But I think all of us are rooting for him like we have all year. If you go to Corona on campus, that’s all they are talking about is Casey. He is so well-liked, so well-loved and everyone will be there cheering for him.”

Benson has a limited role on Oregon’s team this year after starting all 38 games for the Ducks last season. With the rise of players such as Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey, Benson has been coming off the bench and averaging 20.9 minutes and 4.9 points per game.

During high school, Benson won numerous accolades, including the 2014 Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year award after averaging 17.8 points and 4.5 assists a game during his senior season.

Benson’s junior year was his breakout moment on the Arizona high school basketball scene, leading his team with 20.7 points, 3.3 assists and 1.4 steals per game.

“He (had a) will to win his junior year,” Duane said. “In the state finals that year, we were down six with about three minutes to go and Casey came off the floor on a timeout and gathered us and said, ‘Hey we are not losing this game’ and proceeded to hit big shots.”

Benson is the only Arizona native on any of the Final Four rosters.

“He’s a winner,” said Logan Dubek, a high school teammate of Benson’s. “To me, no word describes him better than a winner. When we played, it doesn’t matter if we were down by 20 points, if we were down by two points, if we were up by 20, we are going to win the game. He was always going to find a way to win the game.”

Benson’s high school and college days will now mesh this weekend. Playing in his home state not only brings him a sense of familiarity, but is a chance for Arizona locals to see him play in person once again. Benson expects about 75 family and friends there to watch him play.

“It’s kind of surreal,” Benson said. “I’m kind of still soaking it up and enjoying every minute of it.”

Joining Benson’s family at Saturday’s game is Duane and Duane’s father. Duane, now the head boys basketball coach at Perry High School in Gilbert, has known Benson since he was in third grade.

“Casey used to wear his hair really long, floppy and I remember him third, fourth grade doing dribble drills in our summer camp thinking, ‘Wow this kid is pretty talented,’” Duane said. “It’s fun to see where he was there to now. Here he is playing in a Final Four. It’s a special, special thing to see the development that he’s made.”

Benson said playing for Duane prepared him for the next stage in his career. The two talk or text multiple times a week.

“To be able to play for him was a blast,” Benson said. “I mean it just prepared me for Oregon.”

Benson showcased his ability to deliver down the stretch in the first round of the playoffs his junior year at Corona. Corona was the No. 1 seed playing against Mountain Pointe High School, and getting down to the waning seconds of the game, Benson hit a 25-foot three-pointer to send the game into overtime.

In overtime down three with two seconds left and no timeouts, Benson tied the game after hitting a layup, got fouled and made the free throw to tie the game. It sent the game into double overtime.

And in double overtime?

Benson hit the clutch shot to help Corona win and move on en route to Benson’s second state title.

Away from the basketball court, Benson remains “one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet,” according to Dubek.

Last year, when Oregon was making its tournament run that ended with a loss to Oklahoma in the Elite Eight, Dubek was sitting in class at Arizona State University when he got a text from Benson out of the blue.

“I’m just in spring classes, you know doing whatever I have to do and I get a text from him,” Dubek said. “He goes, ‘Oh hey Logan how’s it going. I kind of wanted to reach out and see how you are doing.’ I’m thinking to myself, I’m like Casey, tomorrow is the biggest game of your life and you are really going to reach out to me and see how I’m doing?”

Dubek said Benson has a “legitimate genuine personality” and even when the two weren’t that close to begin their high school careers, he still showed a sincere interest in all of his teammates.

“The thing that always surprised me about him, for somebody who was so highly-touted, he was always very grounded and very humble,” Dubek said. “He is a very spirited individual and he is a very spiritual individual as it is.

“He always makes sure that the people he cares about and the people who are parts of his life that they stay apart of his life. He’s been doing that as long as I have known him and that’s something I really appreciate about him.”

Duane said Benson was a great mentor to the young players at Corona and helped build back up a program that had not won a state championship since 1994.

“When your best players is your hardest worker, you have something special and you can really lead,” Duane said. “He was our hardest worker and he was our hardest competitor in practice. If we were to do a shooting drill and one player made 15, the very next rep he was making 16 or more.

“He’s a winner and that’s his character.”

Benson took pride in being the hardest working player on the team at Corona del Sol. It was something he enjoyed as he continued to work on his craft.

“You know just wanting to continue to improve,” Benson said. “Just want to be in positions like this. That’s what I think drives me, just wanting to win and help my team.”

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