Towson entered Monday's matchup with Delaware clinging to hope that it could make a late-season push to fulfill its preseason expectations as favorites to win the Colonial Athletic Association.
Another loss to the red-hot Blue Hens, and the Tigers would have to resign themselves to, at best, a No. 2 seed in next month's conference tournament.
Jerrelle Benimon wouldn't have any of it. The preseason CAA Player of the Year put on a show, scoring 25 points and pulling down 18 rebounds, leading the Tigers to a 78-63 victory at SECU Arena and handing Delaware its first conference loss of the season.
Towson (18-9, 9-3 CAA) was able to hold Baltimore native Davon Usher, who had scored 101 points in his previous three games, to 24 points on 5-for-17 shooting. The Blue Hens (19-8, 11-1 CAA) posted a 31.7 field-goal percentage, well below their season average of 44.8. The Tigers converted 19 layups on the night.
"They took a bunch of shots, which we'll take any day," Benimon said. "A lot of their other players weren't scoring too much. If they're taking those shots and not hitting too many, I'll take it."
Towson got out to an early 22-14 lead, dominating Delaware on the boards 17-4. But the Tigers relented, allowing Blue Hens senior guard Devon Saddler to lead Delaware on a 10-2 run, capped off by a monstrous dunk from Blue Hens forward Carl Baptiste, to tie the game at 24 with 9:07 to play in the first half.
Two Towson layups gave the Tigers a quick four-point lead, but Delaware responded with six straight points of its own, including a highlight-reel dunk from freshman guard Cazmon Hayes.
But senior guard Rafriel Guthrie swished a 3-pointer to give the Tigers a 31-30 lead, an advantage they would not relinquish for the remainder of the game.
As halftime approached, Benimon scored seven straight points, including a 3-pointer over Baptiste's outstretched hands, to give his team a 41-34 lead at the break.
Both teams traded barbs early in the second half, but Towson extended their lead to nine after Guthrie weaved through Delaware's defense and hit a contested layup at the rim.
Marcus Damas hit a free throw to make the score 53-43 with just 13 minutes to play, giving the Tigers their first double-digit lead of the game.
Saddler responded with a jump shot on Delaware's next possession, but a layup from Tigers center Walter Foster put the lead back to 10, prompting Blue Hens head coach Monte Ross to call timeout.
Delaware showed signs of life with just over seven minutes to play when a long range 3-pointer from Usher cut Towson's lead to 63-57. But Towson guard Mike Burwell, who finished with 17 points, responded with a fast-break layup, sparking a 10-0 Towson run to put the game away.
"Everybody on the team knew we needed to win," Benimon said. "I guess it builds some confidence for us going into the CAAs."
The Tigers can close the gap on Delaware's conference lead to two games with a win over Northeastern on Thursday in Boston.
"One thing I told them after the game, as I like to leave them with pleasantries, is that no one in this room has beaten Northeastern," Towson coach Pat Skerry said. "So, we've got a major game there Thursday."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun