With a heavy heart, Jerome Hairston responded with the best game of his career.
Towson's freshman guard forged a close friendship last season with Josh Level when the two were down at the Christ School in North Carolina. He was shocked when he heard the news earlier in the week that Level, who had transferred to another high school in North Carolina, collapsed during a game and later died.
"He was so humble and really appreciated the game," Hairston said. "He was a great kid and even though I was the senior and captain last year, I learned so much from him."
"They were good friends," Towson coach Pat Skerry added. "Jerome was emotional all week."
Hairston said he first learned about Level's passing when someone posted, "RIP Josh Level" on Facebook, but he wasn't certain whether it was accurate or not. Then one of his former teammates at Christ School called him and told him it was true.
"I was speechless," he said. "I just sat there and then broke down, but it still hasn't really hit me yet."
Hairston came into Saturday's game against Drexel averaging 9.4 points per contest -- and finished with a career-high 20 points in the win over the Dragons. Skerry said he told him to go to the service for his friend, but Hairston wanted to play -- and his parents came up for support.
"I feel like Josh would have wanted me to play," said Hairston, who wrote his friend's name on his sneakers. "I felt like this was the best way to honor him."
"He was terrific today," Skerry said. "His best game of the year."
The win gave the program, which won a single contest all of last season, its 16th victory of the season. The Tigers were 1-31 a year ago. If Skerry's team can win its final two games -- at George Mason and at home against Hofstra -- it would make the largest single-season turnaround in college basketball history. Towson isn't eligible to play in the postseason due to poor APR scores.
Towson, which is led by Georgetown transfer Jerrelle Benimon, now sits in second place in the Colonial Athletic Association with a school-record 11 league victories. The win also clinched the program's first winning season since 1995-96.
"We've had a good season," Skerry said. "But we need to finish strong."