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Benimon gives Towson basketball team a spark

After 11 games, newcomer Jerrelle Benimon tops Towson basketball in scoring, rebounds and blocked shots. He has led the Tigers to a 4-7 start, no small feat considering last year's 1-31 finish.

So how does Benimon grade his own effort, entering Wednesday's game against Coppin State at the Towson Center?

"Maybe a C-plus," said the 6-foot-8, 245-pound junior transfer from Georgetown. "I could have more assists; I've always strived to pass the ball. And I need to be a more vocal leader. I'll see stuff out there and react, but I don't yell out like I should.

"Yeah, I'd say a C-plus. You can always do better."

Benimon's self-evaluation doesn't surprise Pat Skerry.

"I think he's a closet perfectionist," said Skerry, the second-year coach charged with rebuilding Towson's long-moribund program. "Jerrelle gets a little frustrated with himself when he doesn't do something the way he wants to. And he needs to take care of the ball better (with a team-high 38 turnovers).

"But he's clearly a talent — a hybrid forward who can drive from the perimeter and play in the post, and a rugged rebounder who has surprised us with his skill level."

Benimon, who sat out last year after changing schools, has quickly become the hub of a team rife with underclassmen, a number of them transfers. Averaging 17.1 points and 11.3 rebounds a game, the Warrenton, Va. native is the only Tiger hitting double figures in both. He had a game-high 30 points and 18 rebounds in a loss at Temple, 29 points in a win at Vermont and 16 rebounds in a near upset of 15th ranked Georgetown, 46-40.

Though bent on beating the Hoyas, Benimon played team ball throughout, Skerry said.

"He took just seven shots that night," the coach said. "Jerrelle is incredibly unselfish."

Teammates praise his doggedness, his preparation for games and his willingness to help younger players.

"He's always in attack mode, and he plays extremely hard," said Mike Burwell, a junior guard. "He got where he is because of his work ethic, and our (four) freshmen look up to that."

Marcus Damas, a junior forward, said Benimon's mindset has "helped build a competitive culture" at Towson that was sorely lacking. After each contest, Benimon asks for a DVD of the game and pores over it, looking for ways to step up.

"He doesn't settle for what he's done; he's never content." Damas said. "That's how he has raised the bar."

Following a 23-point effort in an opening loss at College of Charleston, Benimon sat in the airport, waiting for the team's flight and replaying the game on his personal computer. Gradually, other Tigers sidled over to watch.

"Nobody studied films last year," Damas said. "Now a lot of us do it."

Benimon is selfless almost to a fault, teammates said..

"A ball hog, he isn't," Damas said. "He's so unselfish that, sometimes in games, I'll pull him aside and say, 'Stop waiting (for someone else to score) and let's go.' "

Off the court, Benimon acts much the same, said Damas, who shares a dorm room with him and Burwell.

"If Jerrelle goes shopping, whatever he puts in the 'fridge is for everybody," Damas said. "And when he buys a case of 30 bottles of water, he'll give 10 to me and 10 to Mike."

The Tigers think Benimon has found his niche. Two years ago, he didn't know where Towson was.

Two years as a reserve at Georgetown convinced him to look elsewhere, and Skerry's pitch – one of 40 that Benimon received – struckhome.

"I'd only been to Baltimore three times – to see the Orioles and Ravens play, and to see an ankle specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital," he said.

But he liked Towson's uptempo offense, and the opportunity both to revive a program that hasn't produced a winner in 16 years, and to play in a new arena next season. Plus, Benimon got good reports from a high school friend, Cody Reeves, who plays baseball at Towson.

("That was before the college decided to drop its baseball program," he said.)

Sitting out last year was brutal, given the Tigers' wretched record. Both Benimon and Burwell, a transfer from South Florida, could practice with the team but, come game time, they sat together on the bench and watched loss after loss after loss.

"That's all we could do," Benimon said. "Man, it was tough. We'd think, Dang, this team we're playing isn't that good. We should be contending. But nothing clicked.

"We tried talking to the players, suggesting they do this or that. Sometimes it transitioned but, overall, I guess it just wasn't to be."

And now? Benimon sees Towson on the cusp of . . . something better.

"We've been right there, in a couple of games," he said. "But we're still a young team that has just been put together, one that doesn't yet know how to win.

"I hope it doesn't take much longer."

Mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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