FAIRFAX, Va. —
—Towson has seen the end of many streaks during its renaissance basketball season.
It finished off another one Tuesday night at George Mason.
Jerrelle Benimon scored a career-high 31 points, including 22 in the first half, as the Tigers halted a 20-game losing streak to the Patriots with an 85-81 overtime triumph.
Marcus Damas (23 points) made a pair of game-clinching free throws with 7.6 seconds left in the extra period for Towson (17-13, 12-5 Colonial Athletic Association), which remains in contention for a share of the CAA title for at least another night.
“I'm a little bit bittersweet,” coach Pat Skerry said. “I've talked to our kids the last couple games and unfortunately, the NCAA and the league has taken away the tournament for us and postseason. We'd certainly be in a postseason tournament. They couldn't take away tonight, they couldn't take away last Saturday and they won't take away this Saturday.”
Towson still can tie Northeastern atop the CAA standings with a victory Saturday against Hofstra, along with Huskies losses to Georgia State (Wednesday) and Old Dominion (Saturday) to close out the regular season. The Tigers are ineligible for the CAA and NCAA tournament because of NCAA penalties connected with poor Academic Progress Rate scores.
They can still match the largest turnaround in NCAA history with one more victory, an accomplishment that reflects how far Towson has come.
“You win with defense, rebounding and good players, and that's kind of our formula,” said Skerry, whose team beat George Mason for the first time since 1992. “I thought we defended and rebounded last year, we just didn't have the same level of players we have now.”
None of them are as stout as Benimon, who solidified his CAA player of the year credentials with a dominant first half that staked Towson to a 10-point edge at the break.
George Mason (17-12, 10-7) contained Benimon for much of the second half, but he still managed to work his way to the foul line several times.
“Last game I tried to force a lot to the basket,” said Benimon, who hit a career-high three 3-pointers. “I was watching film the other day with one of my other coaches and he said ‘Take more jump shots and see if that can free it up and then go to the hole.' I stepped out more and I think that helped a lot.”
The Tigers led 76-69 entering the final minute of regulation, but struggled at the foul line. George Mason got a 3-pointer with 29.8 seconds left from Patrick Holloway, who then had a steal to set up Anali Okoloji's free throw to pull George Mason within 77-76.
Damas made two free throws, and George Mason frantically tried to tie it. After Holloway missed a 3-pointer, Jonathan Arledge collected the rebound and zipped a pass to Okoloji, who forced overtime with a 3-pointer from the left wing.
The teams traded misses for much of overtime before Bilal Dixon tipped in a miss by Benimon with 37.6 seconds remaining. Copes missed a jumper with 10 seconds left, leading to Damas' free throws to close it out.
With that, Towson assured itself no worse than a third-place finish in the regular season, both an impressive feat and a thought of what could have been under different circumstances if the Tigers were allowed in the CAA tournament.
“I think it'll be a fun, wide open tournament,” Skerry said. “The best team might not be there, but that's the way it goes. I can't guarantee we would have won the thing, but I think we would have been a difficult out.”