Before Towson's Senior Night matchup with William and Mary on Saturday at SECU Arena, Tigers coach Pat Skerry nearly came to tears while addressing his four seniors, who helped the program rebuild itself after a 1-31 record two seasons ago.
It didn't matter for Towson that, on paper, the game was meaningless.
As Jerrelle Benimon and the rest of the Tigers senior class walked to center court for senior ceremonies, Delaware was putting the finishing touches on its victory over the College of Charleston, locking Towson into the No. 2 seed in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, which begins March 7, and stripping them of a chance at an automatic berth to the National Invitation Tournament.
The Tigers didn't care. Skerry said he wasn't aware of Delaware's victory until after an emotional, 70-68, win in front of an announced record crowd of 4,119.
With 21.5 seconds to play, Tribe freshman guard Omar Prewitt sunk two free throws to tie the game at 68. After Skerry called a timeout, and with the clock near zero, Benimon found teammate Mike Burwell under the basket for the winning lay up.
"We tried to play through Jerrelle," Burwell said about his winning bucket. "But I think we created after that. We just played the game, and Jerrelle found me in the post. I just let it fly."
Benimon led Towson with 21 points and 16 rebounds. Forward Tim Rusthoven led William and Mary with 20 points.
Early on, Towson played like nothing was on the line. The Tigers started 3 of 12 from the field as the Tribe sprinted out to an early, 15-6 lead.
An emphatic reverse dunk from Benimon halted the run and got the crowd on its feet, but a 3-pointer from Prewitt stretched the Tribe's lead to 15 with just under seven minutes to play in the first half.
Then sophomore guard Four McGlynn got Towson back into the game. After two free throws from Benimon, McGlynn scored five consecutive points, helping the Tigers sustain a 12-0 run to get Towson back within three with under four minutes to play in the first half.
William and Mary guard Marcus Thornton, who finished with 13 points, hit a contested layup on the Tribe's next possession to get the lead back to five. Another layup from Prewitt over the outstretched hands of Benimon as time expired extended the Tribe's lead to 36-26 at the break.
"We were too amped up," Skerry said. "I was very cognizant of it. ... At halftime, I said 'Hey, you're playing so hard. Don't I usually go bananas when we don't play defense and do some things I shouldn't do and say some things I shouldn't say?' They said 'yeah'. I said 'I'm not saying any of that.'"
The Tigers scored the first six points of the second half to close the deficit. A layup from Towson guard Rafriel Guthrie cut William & Mary's lead to 47-45 with 12 minutes to play.
With Thornton on the bench, Guthrie sunk an open 3-pointer from the right wing to make the score 49-48. Two possessions later, Tigers forward Timajh Parker-Rivera made a free throw to tie the score at 49.
The team's traded baskets on their next possessions, and then with under eight minutes left, Benimon sunk two free throws to give Towson its first lead since going up 2-0 to start the game.
But the Tribe responded, tying the game on Prewitt's free throws, setting Burwell up for his late-game heroics.
If Towson and William and Mary win their opening-round matchups in the CAA Tournament, the teams will meet again in the conference semifinals next Sunday at Baltimore Arena.
"Every win, I think, gives us confidence," Burwell said. "We're gonna have the same game plan when we see them again. Nothing is going to change."
But for Towson, just competing in the CAA tournament is going to be a change. A year ago, despite going 18-13, the Tigers were ineligible for postseason play. Now with a chance at the NCAA tournament, Benimon said, if called upon, he's ready to play 40 minutes every game for the rest of the season.
"There's no other choice," Benimon said. "It comes down to next weekend. Once we lose, we're done. We gotta do it."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun