Monday, January 20, 2014

One Season Later, Towson Comes Full Circle (Recap of Towson v. Charleston)

On November 9, 2012, in what was the first game of the 2012-13 season that I covered in my new home of South Carolina, Towson faced the College of Charleston at TD Arena.  It was the first time in four years I had been at the John Kresse Court at TD Arena.  Four years prior, I was there on vacation for the inaugural Charleston Classic with my good friend Tony Terentieff.   A year and two months ago,  I was there sitting on press row, two hours away from where I now lived in Columbia, South Carolina

In November 2012, Pat Skerry was coming off a 1-31 record in his first season coaching the Tigers.  He finally had several of his transfers eligible, including Jerome Benimon and Mike Burrell.  Meanwhile, the Cougars were spending their last season in the Southern Conference as they had announced earlier that they were joining the CAA.   The veteran Cougars jumped on the Tigers, scoring forty of the first fifty four points in the game.  Towson played much better in the second half, but Charleston went on to win the game 70-58.

Towson used that second half against Charleston as a springboard to a much better record in the 2012-13 season finishing 18-13 and 13-5 in the CAA.  Charleston won twenty four games last season, losing in the Southern Conference Championship game to Davidson and then lost by a point at home in a first round CBI game to George Mason.

Fast forward to a year and a couple of months later.  The preseason CAA conference favorites, Towson entered TD Arena Sunday afternoon with an 11-6 record including a 2-0 record in the CAA.  The Tigers came into the game with a four game winning streak, including an impressive 80-68 road win over Drexel.

Meanwhile, the Cougars have been up and down this season.  They started off this season 2-5, including a 67-58 overtime loss at home to UNC Asheville, a game that I attended.  However the CofC entered Sunday's game having won five of its last six games for a 10-8 record on the season and a 2-1 record in conference.  They also came off an impressive road win, downing Northeastern 58-49, a game that I watched on the NBC Sports channel.

The game started Sunday at 3:30 PM, which was right smack at the beginning of the AFC Championship Game.  My guess is that the football game kept a few people away, but there was still a good crowd to see the basketball game.  Also I had it on good authority that there were a number of NBA scouts in the building, likely there to see one player in particular, the double double machine Jerome Benimon.  Sunday, I was sitting up in Section 204, dead center court to see how Benimon would fair against the Cougars.

Benimon is one of Skerry's transfers, in his case from Georgetown.  Last season, Benimon's first with Towson, he quickly became a force in the CAA.  He averaged seventeen points and eleven rebounds per game, shooting fifty three percent from the field.  This season, Benimon averages eighteen points and eleven rebounds per game while shooting fifty two percent from the field.  The six foot eight, two hundred and forty five pound Benimon is light on his feet, can shoot from the outside and is relentless on the boards.

The game started out with the Cougars' Willis Hall, a near near double double machine in his own right, stroking a three pointer.  This is not unusual for Hall, who shoots nearly forty three percent from beyond the arc.  Hall would add a tip-in and two more three pointers later on to give Charleston a 14-9 lead.  In seven and a half minutes, Hall already had eleven points for the Cougars.

But another of Skerry's transfers, sophomore Four McGlynn, previously the America East Rookie of the Year at Vermont, buried a three pointer.   Then Rafael Guthrie, a JUCO transfer that comes off the bench for Towson nailed a three pointer to tie the game at fifteen.

Charleston would retake the lead as the Cougars' other talented post player, Adjehi Baru scored four of CofC's next six points, including a jumper to give Charleston a 21-17 lead.  After his jumper, the crowd gave a loud BARUUUU cheer.  It would be the last time the Cougars would have the lead the rest of the game.

Towson would score the next six points as Benimon started making his presence known.  Perhaps from the knowledge that many NBA scouts were there to watch him, Benimon had struggled early on from the field, missing four of his first five field goal attempts.  But he was able to draw a foul on Anthony Thomas, then hit one of two free throws.  Then Benimon assisted on a McGlynn three pointer and later hit a jumper to put Towson up 25-23.

After Theo Johnson hit two free throws for Charleston to tie the game at twenty five, Mike Burrell found Benimon, who drilled a three pointer to put the Tigers back up in front.  Burrell would hit his own three to give Towson a six point lead, 31-25.   Benimon was already on his way to a double double with eight points and seven rebounds in the first half.  But Hall would respond for the Cougars by hitting a jumper then assisting Baru on a basket.  Charleston would enter the half only down two, 31-29.  Hall led all scorers with fifteen first half points.

The halftime shows at TD Arena are always fun.  First two students battled in a tricycle race.  My favorite part of that was the PA announcer introduced the tricycle race, driving around on a tricycle himself.  Then Guinness World Record holding juggler Albert Lucas entertained the crowd with various feats of juggling, including sticks of fire.  It was an enjoyable halftime show.

The second half saw Benimon pick up right where he left off.  He first hit a jumper, then assisted on a Burwell jumper to put Towson up 35-31.  Then after Thomas cut the Tigers' lead to three, 37-34, Benimon responded with two straight jumpers to extend Towson's lead to seven, 41-34.  Charleston Head Coach Doug Wojcik called timeout, trying to stop the Tigers' momentum, but it ultimately failed.

After Towson extended the lead to nine on a Timajh Parker Rivera shot, Anthony Stitt nailed a three pointer to cut Towson's lead to six, 43-37.   Marcus Damas hit a three pointer of his own to put the Tigers back up nine, 46-37.  However, the Cougars were still hanging around, only down 48-41 with 10:45 left after a layup by Baru.

That's when another of Skerry's transfers, Burrell, went to work.  Burrell, a transfer from South Florida, started taking Stitt off the dribble drive and Stitt couldn't handle him.  First Burrell drove past Stitt for a layup and one.  But he missed the free throw.  Then on the Tigers' next possession, again Burrell got a layup and one on Stitt.  This time he hit the free throw for the three point play to put the Tigers up 53-41.

After Willis Hall missed a three pointer, Burrell again drove on Stitt. This time, Stitt didn't want to pick up another foul and Burrell drove by him for an easy layup.  Finally Burrell grabbed a rebound on the Cougars' next possession and Benimon subsequently buried a shot to put Towson up 57-41.  In the span of nearly five and a half minutes, Burrell was either directly or indirectly responsible for all nine of the Tigers' points.  What had been a seven point lead was now a sixteen point rout with five plus minutes left.

To make matters worse for the home fans, Charleston went into a major scoring drought during this time. The Cougars went seven minutes and forty five seconds without scoring a field goal.  Finally with three minutes left, Stitt hit a layup to cut the lead to fourteen, 57-43.

But the damage had been done.  The Cougars had to foul the rest of the way, which made for a somewhat painful last three minutes to watch.  Towson scored their final fifteen points from the foul line and Charleston never got closer than thirteen points the rest of the way.  Seldom used Johnathan Cook gave the Cougars their last points of the game on a three pointer and the Tigers won 72-57.

Towson shot forty eight percent in the second half and forty three percent for the game.  Benimon had his ninth double double in a row with twenty points and twelve rebounds, six of which came off the offensive glass. He showed a nice mid range jumper, good ball handling and even nailed a three pointer. Benimon also added three assists and two steals. Burwell added eighteen points, shooting eight of thirteen from the field. Guthrie added fourteen points off the bench and McGlynn had eleven points. Towson is now 3-0 in the CAA and 12-6 overall.

Hall led the Cougars and all scorers with twenty one points, but he only had six points in the second half.  He also had a double double with twelve rebounds, including six on the offensive end.  Baru was the only other Cougar in double figures scoring with nearly a double double of his own, fifteen points and nine rebounds.  Charleston was held to thirty three percent shooting from the field, including six of twenty from beyond the arc.  The Cougars are now 10-9 and 2-2 in the CAA.

As I walked out of the Arena onto Meeting Street, I walked around Charleston for a little bit.  Having stayed overnight in "America's Friendliest City" in September and hung out with my friends in Chucktown this past November, I didn't stay too long this time because I had a two hour drive back home to Columbia.

In November 2012, I didn't stay too long either after the previous Towson-Charleston game because I also had the two hour drive back to Columbia.  At that time, it was a drive back to a lonely rented house that I was staying in while my family was up in New York until our house closed up there.   This time, I was driving back to our new house in Columbia, where the rest of my family is now.  

Understanding where Towson was a year and two months ago, I could appreciate the fact that Tigers had come full circle, as my life here in South Carolina has come full circle too.

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