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Benimon’s part of one of best turnarounds in NCAA history at Towson

Tuesday, Feb. 26 | By Jeff Malmgren
Fauquier High graduate Jerrelle Benimon scored a career-high 31 points to lead Towson over George Mason, 85-81, Tuesday in Fairfax. --Photo by Jeff Via/Towson athletics
It looked like Jerrelle Benimon was building a resume Tuesday for more than just the Lou Henson Award.

One day after being named a finalist for that Mid-Major player of the year award, Benimon showcased an impeccable jump shot, scored a career-high 31 points and added a win-preserving block to help the Towson Tigers beat George Mason, 85-81, in overtime on the road in Fairfax.

It was the kind of performance that made Benimon one of 25 finalists for the Lou Henson Award as a junior.

"It would be better if I was up for national player of the year, but obviously it's a good award," said Benimon, a 2009 Fauquier High graduate.

Perhaps next season he'll take that next step.

Winning any award seemed unlikely for Benimon after he averaged 1.4 points per game over two seasons with the Georgetown Hoyas from 2009-2011. Now Benimon averages 16.7 points and 11.2 rebounds per game, and he's the favorite to win the Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year award.

Entering Tuesday he led the conference in rebounding, ranked third in field goal percentage and blocked shots and was fifth in scoring.

Benimon went 8-for-9 in the first half against George Mason, including 3-for-3 on 3-pointers to give Towson a 46-36 lead. He finished 10-for-14 from the field and 8-for-11 from the free throw line.

With the victory, Towson broke a 20-game losing streak against George Mason and moved within one victory of matching an NCAA record for the best season-to-season turnaround. After posting a 1-31 record in 2011-12 – and suffering an NCAA-record 41-game losing streak over two seasons – the Tigers are 17-13 during Benimon's first season with the team. They have one game remaining March 2 against Hofstra.

Towson is currently tied with two teams in NCAA history (UTEP and Mercer) that have had a season-to-season improvement of 17 games, but it trails a Bryant team that has a 17.5-game improvement this season with two games remaining. If Towson beats Hofstra it will finish with a 17.5-game improvement.

"It is a big deal, but I think it's more important to a fan base," Benimon said. "As players, obviously we care, but I think it's more for building to get more people to come to games next year."

"We've accomplished a lot," he said.

For example, Towson will finish the season with its first winning record since 1995-96, and its 12-5 record in the CAA is its best since joining the conference in 2001. The Tigers were projected to place 10th in the preseason poll of the 11-team CAA, but they stand in second place.

Nevertheless, the Tigers will not play in the CAA tournament or the NCAA tournament after being ruled ineligible due to a low Academic Progress Rate score three seasons ago.

"It's pretty rough, but we'll deal with it … and wait for next year," Benimon said. "It's going to be fun. I think we're going to get a lot of national recognition come next season, which will increase the fan buzz."

This season's CAA tournament will go on without Towson, March 9-11.

"It might be missing the best team," Towson coach Pat Skerry said of his Tigers. "I can't guarantee we would have won the thing, but I think we would have been a difficult out."

Benimon agreed.

"We'd be pretty dangerous," he said. "You really have to defend [in the tournament] and rebound. We have great numbers nationally."

Towson entered the game ranked first in the CAA with a plus-6.6 rebounding margin and as the No. 1 field goal defense having held opponents to 39.4 percent.

The Tigers' game against George Mason actually had a bit of an NCAA tournament feel to it with the Patriots overcoming a 72-63 deficit with less than three minutes remaining and sending the game into overtime on an Anali Okoloji 3-pointer with 1.9 seconds remaining in regulation.

In overtime, Benimon made an 18-foot jumper to tie the score, 81-all. Then Bilal Dixon gave Towson an 83-81 lead on a put-back layup and Benimon sealed the win by blocking a short Erik Copes jump shot with 10 seconds remaining.

Benimon even got a smile out of Copes while walking up court after the decisive block.

"I was like, 'I did my scouting report. I saw you hit the game winning shot last game,'" Benimon said.

George Mason defeated William and Mary, 60-58, Saturday when Copes made a 13-foot jumper with less than a second remaining.

Benimon finished Tuesday with seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks, plus his 31 points, which helped make up for a previous game against George Mason after which Skerry said of Benimon, "He was really bad. … He took some horrific, horrific shots."

Benimon made only 5 of 15 field goals and finished with 16 points in that Jan. 23 game, which Towson lost 77-67.

George Mason's plan against Benimon in both games was to force him to attack the basket off the dribble rather than allowing him to shoot jump shots, Patriots coach Paul Hewitt said.

George Mason didn't execute that plan well enough Tuesday.

"Last game they were kind of crowding up on me. My goal was to get a couple pull-ups going early," Benimon said. "Last game I think I tried to force a lot to the basket."

The Patriots did force Benimon to try to score off the dribble in the second half Tuesday and held him to nine points after a 22-point first half, but Marcus Damas compensated by scoring 15 of his 23 points after halftime.

Plus, Benimon still made that critical jumper and block in overtime.

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