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Benimon became superb basketball player even though Towson missed NCAA tourney

Tuesday, Mar. 11 | By Jeff Malmgren
Jerrelle Benimon's historic two-year run as a Towson University basketball star is coming to an end soon, but the Fauqiuer product is viewed as an NBA prospect. --Photo courtesy Towson Athletics/Rich Riggins
It’s easy to see Jerrelle Benimon has developed into an elite college basketball player.

The signs are everywhere.

The Towson University senior owns a pair of Player of the Year plaques from the Colonial Athletic Association. His name sits atop the list of athletes with the most double-doubles in NCAA Division I this season. He has attracted NBA scouts to many of the Tigers’ games.

And, most literally, his image is actually on billboards in Baltimore.

Perhaps the most telling sign, though, is that opposing coaches have taken a sort of “acceptable loss” approach to guarding Benimon, a 2009 Fauquier High graduate.

That was the case Sunday during William and Mary’s 75-71 win over Towson in the semifinals of the CAA tournament at Baltimore Arena.

Tribe coach Tony Shaver felt plenty pleased with his team’s defensive performance even though it lost five rebounds to Benimon and gave up 18 points to the 6-foot-8 forward.

“A pretty good night for most people, but I thought we did a great job on him,” Shaver said. “Even some of the shots he made. … The one-foot fade away on the baseline – I’ll take that all day long [even though] he’s good enough to make that play.”

Benimon makes plays a lot of college players his size can’t pull off. His forward frame encapsulates guard skills as well as rebounding prowess.

He showed much of his diverse talent Sunday, beginning the Tigers’ scoring with a 3-pointer and later streaking down the lane for a put-back layup. He also made a handful of dribble jumpers, including that one-foot fade away after a behind-the-back dribble.

Benimon even grabbed a defensive rebound, dribbled the length of the floor and beat the Tribe’s transition defense for a left-handed layup. Plus, Towson coach Pat Skerry repeatedly set Benimon up with the ball at the top of the key during the final six minutes. His directive was to create off the dribble as the Tigers needed to recover from a 65-60 deficit.

“Put the ball in Jerrelle’s hands,” Skerry said. “We said all week, ‘We’ve got to ride him.’”

Benimon’s unique skill set made him the CAA Player of the Year for the second consecutive season. He became only the eighth player in CAA history to earn that title more than once. He also made the conference’s all-defensive team for the second consecutive season.

Benimon came seemingly out of nowhere to win the Player of the Year award last season after transferring from Georgetown, where he played sparingly for two seasons. He returned for Towson in 2013-14 with a higher profile, but nonetheless repeated as Player of the Year.

“It’s a good accomplishment,” Benimon said Sunday. “But right now it doesn’t really mean too much with this loss. We didn’t get our goal” of qualifying for the NCAA tournament.

Playing in the CAA tournament was a highlight, though, after Towson was barred from postseason play last season thanks to a low Academic Progress Rate prior to Skerry’s arrival in 2011-12. The second-seeded Tigers opened the tournament with an 80-71 win over No. 7 James Madison in the quarterfinals.

“That’s what we’ve been waiting for,” Benimon said of playing in the postseason. “But we obviously wanted to win [the CAA title]. It’s tough. … I’m the biggest sore loser ever.”

While the Tigers didn’t qualify for the NCAA tournament, they will likely play in the NIT. Regardless, Towson (23-10) has already set a school record with 23 wins at the D-I level, a feat made more impressive after the Tigers set an NCAA record for futility two seasons ago.

The Tigers lost 41-consecutive games between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons. They went 1-31 during 2011-12 with Benimon sitting out due to transfer rules.

Once Benimon returned to the court in 2012-13, Towson went 18-13 to complete the greatest turnaround in NCAA history and snap a run of 16-consecutive losing seasons.

During that transformation, Benimon became the face of Towson basketball – hence the billboards, and the like.

“It’s nice,” Benimon said. “It’s good that not just me, but Towson basketball, is out there.

“We turned this program around,” he said. “The culture of the program has changed.”

Towson, however, will lose four seniors following this season, including Benimon and Mike Burwell, a transfer from South Florida three seasons ago.

“They’ve meant everything to getting our program off the mat,” Skerry said.

Benimon set a CAA single-season record with 378 rebounds as a senior and leads the nation with 11.5 rebounds per game. He also leads Towson with 18.9 points per game, 3.6 assists and 1.2 blocks.

“We all know what a terrific, special player Jerrelle’s been,” Skerry said. “I don’t think you can replace a guy like him.”

To wit, Benimon’s basketball career won’t likely end after leaving Towson.

“He has a good chance to make the NBA,” said Brooklyn Nets scout Bob Ferry, previously a two-time NBA Executive of the Year as the Washington Bullets’ general manager. “He’ll be playing for a pro team somewhere. … He’s skilled, and a good athlete.”

Missing, for the most part, from Benimon’s game Sunday were rebounds and free throws. His five rebounds tied for a season-low, while he went 2-for-2 on free throws. Benimon attempted fewer than three free throws in only two other games, and he averaged 8.7 attempts per contest.

“I was getting some drives, but wasn’t getting calls I usually do,” Benimon said. “They definitely didn’t call as many fouls.”

In the quarterfinals against James Madison, Benimon made 12 of 21 free throws en route to 18 points.

Against third-seeded William and Mary (20-11), Towson never led in the second half after entering halftime tied, 36-36. However, the Tigers had a chance to again tie the game with 18 seconds remaining and the Tribe leading 73-71.

Skerry, naturally, isolated his best player at the top of the key with the ball. Benimon beat his defender and dribbled down the middle of the lane into a scrum. In its midst, Marcus Thornton deftly stripped the ball from Benimon.

“I’d do it over in the same way … 100 out of 100 times,” Skerry said. “Drive the ball to the rim.”

“I couldn’t get the ball up,” Benimon said. “I usually never get stripped. I usually have strong hands.”

He later wrapped those hands around the back of his net as he walked off the court with a lamenting grimace.

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