On March 19, 2015, Malik Benlevi sat in a classroom at Jenkins High School in Savannah, Ga., glued to his phone. It was the last period of the school day during his senior year and Benlevi was sitting at his desk during yearbook club watching Georgia State take on No. 3-seed Baylor in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Anyone even marginally familiar with Georgia State basketball remembers how that game ended, with R.J. Hunter hitting a 30-foot shot with 2.6 seconds left for a Panthers’ victory that could have only been foreseen by the most loyal of GSU homers.
Benlevi, who dreamed about playing for Georgia State since he took up basketball at age 10, went nuts. And there was no doubt the feelings he had for Georgia State were mutual when he decided to commit.
“It was the love they showed me,” Benlevi said. “[Georgia State] was at every AAU tournament, came out to a couple high school games, so, I had to show love back.”
Now in his senior season at Georgia State, Benlevi has become one of the most talented and respected players in the program’s history. Named team captain this year for the second straight season, Benlevi leads the team in rebounding and is second in 3-pointers made and third in scoring average.
His buzzer-beater to beat Alabama in December will go down as one of the all-time moments in Georgia State basketball, alongside the one he watched three years earlier while dreaming about his future in blue and white. No matter what he has been asked to do - score, grab rebounds or guard multiple positions - Benlevi has come through.
“Since he’s been [at Georgia State] he’s been the heart and soul of our program,” said coach Ron Hunter. “He’s the one guy that we can’t afford to have out. He just does everything for the program on the court, off the court and does it right.”
His teammates describe him as a funny guy, always smiling and keeping things light, a quality he says he gets from his mom. But being a team captain is not something Benlevi takes lightly.
“Coach Hunter really trusts me taking charge of this team when he’s not on the floor with us,” Benlevi said. “I come in with a positive attitude every day. I’m always happy, I smile, but they know I’m going to give it my all.”
With another conference title and NCAA Tournament in his sights, he should have plenty to smile about this season.