March 19, 2003

On the Other Side

March 19, 2003

By Jeff Passan
The Fresno Bee

Michelle Bento can spout her spiel ad nauseam.

When her Santa Clara women's basketball team comes to Fresno State for a first-round Women's National Invitation Tournament game Friday, she will treat it like any other game.

Then factor in Bento's Bulldogs connections:

Her four years spent as a standout point guard at Fresno State, one of which included the Bulldogs' last WNIT appearance.

Her fifth season at Fresno State as an All-College World Series second baseman for the Bulldogs' softball team.

Her two years as a Fresno State women's basketball assistant.

Her team's 62-55 home loss to Fresno State earlier this season.

Any other game?

"That's what she tells me, too," said her father, Rich Bento. "Sorry. Don't buy it. Playing Fresno -- particularly at Fresno -- she'd like to win."

Or better put: She hates to lose.

"I'm not very good at it," Bento said. "Whether it's Fresno State or another team, that's the way I am. I'm very competitive and don't like to lose."

That attitude drove Bento to Santa Clara, where she has led the Broncos to a 20-10 record in her first season as a coach.

And she completes the circle Friday when she returns to the North Gym, where she dished out many of the 445 assists that place her third on the Bulldogs' career list and played nearly half of her 119 games, a Fresno State record Omelogo Udeze will tie Friday.

Bento hasn't been to the North Gym since she assisted under coach Linda Wunder during the 1996-97 and '97-98 seasons.

Any other game?

"I'm sure it's going to be a very emotional night for Michelle," said Wunder by phone from Charleston, Ill., where she is the women's basketball coach at Eastern Illinois. "For her to come back to North Gym in a place she's played and coached with so much on the line, it's going to be an awesome experience for her. It's one of those games where I'm a little torn. Who do I cheer for?"

Probably Bento.

This opportunity, after all, is what she waited for during nine years as an assistant. After graduating from Fresno State in 1992, she spent three years as an assistant at San Jose State before returning to Fresno. She shipped off to Syracuse for four years following her apprenticeship under Wunder.

Last season, Syracuse coach Marianna Freeman delegated more responsibility to Bento. The team saw its greatest success in a decade, making the Women's NCAA Tournament and springing Bento to the forefront of young, aggressive coaching candidates.

"She gave me a lot of freedom," Bento said of Freeman, who resigned Tuesday. "She knew I had aspirations to be a head coach. I was foaming out the mouth. People ask me if it was a hard transition. No way. I was doing so much at Syracuse my last year."

Athletic as ever -- Bento was invited to a WNBA tryout camp in 2000 and tried out for the 1996 Olympic softball team, too -- she participates in practice to fill in for the injury-ravaged Broncos, who will be without two starters Friday.

Leadership always came naturally to Bento. Whether she called out a play as the 5-foot-5 point guard or rallied a team in the huddle, mincing words wasn't Bento's style.

"There was no beating around the bush," said Bob Spencer, Bento's coach at Fresno State, who is two weeks from retirement in Bella Vista, Ark. "She gave me her 2 cents worth, and that's what I needed. She wasn't afraid to tell me her opinion. She did it with respect."

She certainly earned hers.

In a softball game after she graduated from Fresno State, Bento, playing shortstop, tried to turn a double play. A hard slide grounded Bento, who writhed in pain.

"And she wouldn't come out of the game," said Rich, her father. "No one could believe it. She actually cried on the field. She came up to the plate one last time. Could barely walk. And she struck out. But everyone was impressed she hung in there."

Fresno State men's basketball assistant Bob Burton met Bento during a Hoop It Up tournament in the Bay Area while he was coaching at West Valley Junior College in Saratoga.

"This girl was diving for the ball everywhere, scraping her knees up," he said. "I wanted to know who it was."

The same Bento who earned plenty of playing scars at Fresno State.

Over her four seasons, the Bulldogs went 71-49. Bento helped distribute the ball to All-American Simone Srubek in the 1989-90 season, Fresno State's last WNIT appearance during which it lost the opening-round game to North Carolina-Charlotte but recovered to beat Wyoming and Illinois State.

"The WNIT was huge," Bento said.

Just like this season.

For Bento, everything has materialized rapidly. A coaching job. Success. Happiness. All she wanted when she enrolled at Fresno State.

"People go into college not sure what they want to do," Bento said. "I knew what I wanted. I've been a sports junkie, a basketball junkie. I'm where I want to be. And we want to go further.

"Fresno State stole one from us on our home court. They came out in the second half and played really well. We want to do the same."

Of course. It's more than any other game.