When Nick Bennett walked onto the hardwood at Kachel Gymnasium on Feb. 5, fate handed him an adrenaline-filled game jam-packed with personal storylines.
One could forgive him if he was a little nervous.
"I didn't sleep for three nights. I took a yoga class to focus myself," Bennett said.
With head coach Pat Miller sidelined due to surgery, Bennett, who joined UW-Whitewater this fall as assistant coach of the men's basketball team, was called upon to lead the Warhawks in a critical WIAC match-up.
Their opponent, UW-Stevens Point, was the number one team in the country. Undefeated.
And it just happens to be Bennett's alma mater - the school where, as a player, Nick served as captain of the men's basketball team that won two national championships while being coached by his father, Jack Bennett.
On the opposite side of the court stood Bob Semling, current coach of the Pointers, a man Nick considers an uncle; a man with 200 wins on his resume.
Add to that an electric atmosphere - Kachel Gym packed with purple-clad fans anticipating a close, hard-fought competition.
Not to mention, it was a little nerve-wracking filling in for Miller, who has never had a losing season and led the Warhawks to a national championship in 2012.
"He's a legend who will go down as one of the best coaches in NCAA history at any level," Bennett said. "He's passionate, ultracompetitive, and it's been an unbelievable experience learning from him."
Miller gave Bennett clear and simple instructions on taking the reigns.
"He told me to coach to the best of my ability. Make sure the guys are confident and comfortable," Bennett said.
Of course, the game turned out to be a nail-biter. Eight ties. Fourteen lead changes. Overtime.
"It wasn't just another Division III game. The teams played at a really high level," Bennett said.
When the final buzzer sounded, the scoreboard read Warhawks 81, Pointers 76.
UW-Whitewater fans erupted. For Bennett, it meant jubilation and relief.
"It was a huge weight off my shoulders," he said. "The atmosphere was very tense the whole game. We were down four points with 30 seconds left to the number one team in the country, and we won. The players didn't get rattled. Their execution and ability to make plays was outstanding."
(Photo, above: UW-Whitewater's Alex Merg, right, comes off the court to a hug of congratulations from from Jack Bennett, father of acting coach Nick Bennett after UW-Whitewater defeated UW-Stevens Point in overtime.)
The Bennett name is familiar to many basketball fans in Wisconsin and across the U.S. Nick's uncle, Dick Bennett, coached the UW-Madison Badgers from 1995-2000, bringing them to the Final Four. Dick's son, Tony, is head coach at the University of Virginia; his daughter, Kathi, is head coach of the women's team at Northern Illinois University.
Nick worked in various athletics roles at Marquette University, Florida Gulf Coast University and University of Texas-Pan American before joining the Warhawk Family. It's been a great fit.
"At UW-Whitewater, we just have so much to offer athletically, academically and socially," Bennett said. "It's easy to recruit because of the community here."
Meantime, the Warhawks are 3-0 under Bennett, with two regular season games remaining. The conference tournament starts Feb. 26. Coach Miller is expected to return for the playoffs, if not sooner. (Update: Miller returned for the Feb. 15 game).
Bennett says he's looking forward to continuing to help the team reach its athletic and academic goals.
"We're often taking guys who otherwise would never be college students, and helping him find motivation through athletics to earn their degrees," Bennett said. "With many of the athletes I've coached, I'm so proud to see how far they've come, how they've changed as a person. They're running their own businesses; they're the best teachers in their schools. That's rewarding in so many ways."
- Written by Jeff Angileri, Photography by Craig Schreiner