By JOHN SAHLY - jsahly@daily-chronicle.com

Building blocks

Bennett opens first NIU practice with emphasis on defense

DeKALB – As if she needed to, Marke Freeman repeated what’s going to be in store for the Northern Illinois women’s basketball team this year under new head coach Kathi Bennett. Twice.

“We know it’s going to be defense,” the senior guard said. “We know it’s going to be defense. We know it’s going to be defense.

“So we’ll just work it from there and build it from the ground up.”

With that, the first official practice of the Bennett era at NIU was underway Monday at the Convocation Center.

Bennett, hired in mid-May to replace Carol Owens who left for an assistant coaching spot at Notre Dame, said she was excited and nervous before her team’s first practice and the team would focus on small goals first.

“We’ve got to build our identity and build our defense and more of a sureness with the ball,” Bennett said. “We had a couple of team workouts where that really stuck out.”

The Huskies only had 11 healthy players on the first day and Bennett said her tendency to go all-out in practice would have to be tempered a little bit, but it wouldn’t affect how the Huskies would go about building that defensive identity that Bennett wants to build.

“I’m just really impressed with how bad they want to learn,” Bennett said. “This is really foreign to them, because they played a lot of zone and all denial. And this is really the opposite of that, so it’s going to take some time.”

Freeman, a second team All-Mid-American Conference player last season, said she and Bennett have constantly talked about expectations for this season and Freeman becoming a catalyst on the defensive end in addition to what she can do on the offensive end.

“It’s fun. Not too many players look at defense as fun, but I realized that you don’t have to be as athletic as you think you are to be a good defender,” Freeman said. “She’s taught me a lot of things. I’m better at defense than what I thought I was.”

Thorp update: After undergoing successful surgery to repair a torn left ACL and meniscus in August, NIU freshman forward/guard Jenna Thorp said she was ahead of schedule in her rehab and hopes to be practicing earlier than originally anticipated.

“Personally, I want to be back practicing by January, but I don’t know what the actual (day) is,” Thorp said.

The Hinckley-Big Rock graduate said she can do squats, lunges, ride a stationary bike and is pretty close to getting back the ability to fully bend the knee, but has “a couple more inches to go.” Even with an optimistic return of January, a redshirt year still is possible for the Hinckley-Big Rock graduate.

“It’s to be determined, probably,” Thorp said.

Thorp added that it was great to be at the first day of practice and that she has gotten to know Bennett pretty well over the past few months.

“All of the coaches are great,” she said. “They all have their own personality.”

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