Last week, for the first time since late March, a familiar Indiana Hoosier guard jogged to the scorer’s table to check into a game.
As junior Bendu Yeaney ran onto the court, the crowd applauded and shouted in approval. It was a special moment for the Portland, Ore. native, who tore her left Achilles tendon in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and was cleared to play a month ahead of schedule.
“Checking into the game was like checking into my first-ever college basketball game,” Yeaney said. “Honestly, there were a lot of emotions, because I hadn’t played in nine months. But I was also happy to be back on the floor with my teammates again.”
“It wasn’t so much about me playing, but having the chance to share the court again with my teammates. That’s what was memorable, was seeing the smiles on their faces when I checked in and them being excited for me; it made me feel blessed. They’re the best teammates in the world.”
Coach Teri Moren was also happy to see Yeaney’s return against Butler – a game in which No. 12 Indiana prevailed.
“Benny has worked hard the last nine months,” she said after the match up. “That is not an easy injury to come back from, and so I was really just happy that she had the opportunity to get out there.”
Yeaney scored three points in 10 minutes of play, and against Youngstown State four days later, she had four points in 15 minutes. It was a far cry from last season, when she averaged 9.7 points in 32.1 minutes per game as a starter for the Hoosiers her first two years. But Yeaney has shown flashes of the electric brilliance for which she is known.
“I thought Bendu was just what I thought Bendu would look like,” Moren said after her first night back. “She turned it over a couple times. She made a nice play there in the second half when they went to their zone….. As I told her walking down the stairs with her — that looked like Bendu Yeaney.”
The return of Yeaney is even more meaningful given the emotional circumstances around her first major injury.
Indiana began the 2018-2019 season on fire, winning their first 10 games and going on to knock off three ranked opponents by the end of the year. They earned an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, and were sent to the first two rounds at the University of Oregon – 110 miles from Yeaney’s hometown.
Her parents and older brother Chris made the trip on a Friday, as did numerous other members of Yeaney’s family, who occupied a large section in the stands as the Hoosiers took on ranked Texas. After they pulled off the upset, Yeaney climbed into the seats and was mobbed by family members.
Two days later, playing the Ducks, the Achilles tendon that had been strained all season long ruptured at the 6:56 mark of the third quarter. Yeaney, who was at mid-court, fell to the floor grabbing her foot. Once she was helped back to the sidelines, she began to cry as she stood in front of Moren.
“Having my family in the stands was really tough because I looked at my mom and dad’s faces and I knew they knew what happened, and I knew what happened,” Yeaney said. “I said to them in the locker room was, ‘I’m sorry you had to witness this in person.'”
As soon as doctors checked Yeaney out, she insisted on returning to her team’s bench on crutches, where she watched most of the last quarter of the game.
“The hardest was that I wasn’t able to finish the game with my teammates, because we worked so hard for that moment, and to get in the Tournament,” she said. “Not being able to finish it with them was tough. That’s why I went back out to watch them finish, is I wanted them to know I’m still part of the team.”
The Hoosiers lost, and Yeaney had surgery in Bloomington soon afterward. Her recovery began with frustration.
“The hardest part was (that) I had to stay in bed for two weeks, and I’m an independent person, so having people do things for me was really hard,” she said. “That’s when I was down on myself, because I couldn’t move around well.”
Yeaney’s older brother Chris stepped in. He had been at the arena the day of her injury, and had tried to cheer her up in the locker room. After her surgery, Chris Yeaney began calling his sister at least once a week.
“He would make sure I stayed positive,” she said. “We’d talk about anything and everything, and he’d motivate me more.”
It was her brother who suggested an approach to rehab that became Yeaney’s motto.
“He was saying, ‘you’ve got to be ruthless now,'” she said. “‘I know this is the biggest injury you’ve had, but….you’re one of the strongest people I know.’ He was motivating and inspirational.”
“The ruthless word comes from him. That’s the mentality I had to adopt.”
When rehab began, Yeaney was all in.
“My mindset was that I had to be ruthless – I had to go in there and do everything I could to get back to playing again,” she said. “Ruthless means to me that I’m going to fight no matter what to get to my goal…..whether it’s rehab everyday or me cheering my team on from the bench, I’ll do it to the best of my ability.”
At first, Yeaney couldn’t do much in physical therapy except practice moving her ankle in all directions and riding the stationary bike. After two weeks she began two-a-day sessions for an hour each – a schedule she continues to keep.
“Even now I do rehab every day – early mornings and then I come back in the afternoon and do a little more,” she said. “I do less (than previously), but I (also) have a couple of treatment (practices) to keep my foot warm and ready to practice.”
Throughout her journey back to the court, Yeaney got plenty of support from her village.
“Everything was positive throughout my recovery,” she said. “My teammates came to check up on me, my coaches texted me. My sister came up from Chicago to make sure I was good.”
“And I kept watching basketball, because basketball makes me happy.”
Redshirt junior guard Ali Patberg said it was important to her and the rest of the team to help Yeaney stay up.
“We were all individually there for her in different ways, from encouraging her in pushing herself in rehab to continuing to check up on her,” Patberg said. “Being without basketball for nine months is difficult for anyone, (so we wanted to) make sure she was doing OK mentally, and staying focused on staying strong and taking one goal at a time.”
Patberg is no stranger to injury herself, having torn her ACL and separated her shoulder. She offered words of wisdom to her teammate.
“When she first tarted the rehabilitation process, the big thing I told her was that if you look at if the big picture, it’s a lot harder,” Patberg said. “Just focus on one day at a time and one rehab exercise at a time. And most importantly, celebrate the little victories: now I can walk, now I can squat. It’s overwhelming if you look at it as one big process.”
Yeaney went to every practice and was able to join half-court drills in October. She accompanied the team on every trip and took an active role in leading the six freshman from the sidelines, on what is the deepest Indiana roster in many years.
Patberg said the speed of Yeaney’s recovery was not unexpected.
“None of us were surprised because of how she’s been working through the whole process, and the positivity she shows every day,” Patberg said.
Yeaney will continue to work her way back into the starting lineup, while the rest of the Hoosiers endeavor to maintain the program’s highest ranking in school history. In the meantime, Yeaney is counting the mental victories as well as the physical ones.
“The only basketball I didn’t want to watch (at first) was our game against Oregon, because of my injury,” she said. “Now I feel confident enough to watch that game and not feel as down as I was feeling that day.”