When last seen on the Hersheypark Arena basketball court, Billy Owens was scoring 53 points and leading Carlisle High School to its fourth straight Pennsylvania state championship.
"That was one of the best games I ever played," said Owens, who won several 1988 national high school player of the year honors his senior season. "It was a special day and brings back a lot of memories."
Owens, now an All-American for Syracuse University, will get an opportunity to recapture that special moment tonight, when the third-ranked Orangemen (9-0) take on Towson State (3-3) in Hershey, Pa.
It's a home game for the Tigers and the second time that Towson has played a team with a hometown-favorite player at Hersheypark Arena. Two seasons ago, the Tigers played host to North Carolina there in a game that allowed Jeff Lebo, a former teammate of Owens at Carlisle High School, a chance to play near his hometown. The Tar Heels won that game, 102-74, and Owens hopes his return will yield similar results.
"I'm going there to take care of business first, but it's going to be exciting," Owens said. "I'm looking forward to going back home and playing there, because it's going to give the people [in Carlisle] an opportunity to see me play. It's going to be just like in high school, and the Carlisle fans are just as loud as the people up in the [Syracuse Carrier] Dome."
Not that the Orangemen are likely to need that much crowd support against a Towson team that still is trying to find itself. The Tigers came off a 13-day layoff Tuesday to beat Howard, 77-62, as guard Devin Boyd scored a career-high 28 points. But Towson coach Terry Truax said that the Tigers face a great challenge against the Orangemen.
"This game helps recruiting, but it doesn't necessarily help a coach's record," Truax said yesterday before leaving for Hershey. "It's good for our program to get the exposure playing a nationally ranked team. But even though it's our home game and Syracuse will be wearing the orange, there will probably be more Billy Owens fans and Syracuse fans in the arena than Towson fans."
Long considered a terrible outside shooting team, the Orangemen seem to have solved that problem this season. After finishing eighth in the Big East in three-point shooting a year ago with 33.1 percent, the Orangemen are shooting 41.4 percent. Freshman guard Adrian Autry has hit 12 of 30 three-pointers (40 percent), and freshman swingman Scott McCorkle has hit eight of 11 (72.7 percent).
"I don't think teams are going to find zones against Syracuse as successful as they've been in the past," Canisius coach Marty Marbach said after a 92-83 loss to Syracuse on Dec. 12. "I don't think outside shooting is going to be a problem for Syracuse, especially with those kids."
Despite the additions, the focus of the offense is Owens, 6 feet 9, 225 pounds. Playing power forward, but versatile enough to play small forward and both backcourt positions, Owens is averaging 21.3 points and 11.0 rebounds. After playing for two seasons behind Derrick Coleman, this year's top draft pick by the New Jersey Nets, and Stephen Thompson, Owens has been more than happy to assume the leadership role.
"It feels good, because I know a lot of plays will go to me and I'll
be able to touch the ball almost every time down court," Owens said. "I'll also improve as a rebounder, because Derrick used to do all the rebounding last year. It hurts that [Coleman and Thompson] aren't here, but I think we've adjusted well as a team."
Owens, considered a candidate for national Player of the Year, often is asked whether he will turn pro after this season. Owens, who is majoring in family and community studies, said he will not think about that until after the season.
"Right now, I'm just concentrating on the upcoming schedule and the league," Owens said. "I know that if you want to go on to the next level, you have to keep improving. I'm just looking to improve all the aspects of my game."