By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun
9:12 PM EST, March 2, 2013
For more than a decade, Towson's last regular-season home game has been a sleepy, sad event.
It usually signaled the end of another long, losing season and the end of mostly disappointing college basketball careers for seniors playing their last game.
For this year's Tigers, there is no postseason after former players couldn't adhere to the rules governing the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate. But there is plenty of hope for an increasingly bright future.
In closing their first winning season in 17 years with a sloppy, but satisfying 67-64 victory over Hofstra on Saturday at Towson Center, the Tigers made history by completing the biggest single-season turnaround in NCAA history.
A few dozen fans among the announced 4,119 in attendance, the largest crowd of the season, rushed the court moments after Hofstra guard Stevie Mejia's corner 3-point shot to force overtime fell short.
Many in the crowd stayed around as Towson athletic director Mike Waddell celebrated the team's turnaround and commemorated the last men's basketball game to be played in Towson Center before the university opens Tiger Arena next season.
After going 1-31 in Pat Skerry's first season as coach, Towson finished 18-13 overall and 13-5 in the Colonial Athletic Association this season. The 17 1/2-game improvement broke the previous NCAA record of 17 held by Mercer (2002-03) and Texas-El Paso (2003-04).
"When we reflect back on this, it's really an amazing accomplishment, to set an NCAA record," Skerry said. "I, as a young coach, have certainly learned what pride means, and these guys have it. To know you can't go to the postseason and every day work that hard and play that hard has taught me a lot. My respect level and appreciation for these guys will last forever."
Junior forward Marcus Damas, who along with freshman guard Jerome Hairston led the Tigers with 17 points each, said that when the crowd rose late in the game to help lift their team, "that's when it really hit us, we were a minute and 50 seconds from making history. When they rushed the court, that's the greatest feeling in the world."
Two hours earlier, Skerry sat outside the team's locker room, nervously tapping his foot. The fiery coach seemed nervous, and admitted so later.
But once he got his players together in the locker room, his message was clear.
"This is our championship game," Skerry told his players. "The league, the NCAA, they can take away our postseason, but they can't take away today, they can't take away the next 40 minutes, they can't take away history, either."
Hofstra (7-24, 4-14) nearly did. Skerry's season-long message was about playing for pride, but it was Towson's scrappy opponent that seemed to be living up to its nickname. The Pride, who came into the game with 13 losses in its last 15 games, built a 22-12 lead in the first half and found itself up, 35-28, early in the second half.
Towson senior center Bilal Dixon first career 3-point shot started a 19-4 run that seemingly helped the Tigers take control of the game, but Hofstra wouldn't go away, and used a 12-2 run of its own to take a 53-50 lead with a little over five minutes left.
Skerry was more than a little concerned. In retrospect, Skerry blamed himself and credited Hofstra for the way his team played in spurts.
"I wanted the game bad, maybe too bad," Skerry said. "I maybe made my guys too tight today. They certainly wanted it bad. … When you wanted something bad in sports, it doesn't always happen right away. But I thought our kids really grinded it late and hung in there."
Jerrelle Benimon certainly did. After missing the past two days practice because of a staph infection in his leg, the junior forward willed the Tigers to victory. Benimon scored 10 of his team's final 17 points, including a pair of three-point plays, one with 1:08 left that gave Towson a 62-55 lead.
The favorite to win the Colonial Athletic Association's Player of the Year award — "if he's not unanimous, someone should lose his voting privileges," Skerry joked — Benimon finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds, his NCAA-leading 19th double-double of the season.
"He was a warrior today. He was a soldier today. He's still on the mend, but he fought through it," Skerry said.
Said Benimon: "My shot wasn't falling [3 of 10], so I thought I'd just get to the free-throw line more. It worked. I was hitting my free throws [8 of 8]."
The turnaround in basketball is as, if not more remarkable, than when the Towson football team went from 1-10 in 2010 to 9-3 and winning the CAA championship in 2011. It, too, was one of the biggest turnarounds in NCAA history.
The man many believe responsible for Towson's recent athletic rise sees it as only the beginning.
Former Towson president Robert L. Caret, who first came to the university to teach organic chemistry in 1974 and left to return to his native New England two years ago to run the University of Massachusetts system, came back to celebrate with old friends.
Caret hired Waddell, who hired then-Pittsburgh assistant Skerry to coach the Tigers men's basketball team. Caret was also largely responsible for bringing Rob Ambrose, a member of then-Connecticut coach Randy Edsall's staff, back to his alma mater four years ago.
"We've been building and building for years and years," Caret said after the game. "It takes having the right people in place, and in Mike and Pat and Rob, we've got three of the key people. It's true in the other sports, too. The facilities are great. The new arena is going to be a terrific addition. I was here when this building opened. To be here when it's closing, it's pretty exciting to see where we've come."
Skerry is sad to see what he called the most satisfying season of his coaching career come to an end.
"I'm still fresh. I wish I had another month with these guys," he said.
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun