Before last Sunday’s Halifax Rainmen game, new head coach Les Berry issued Tony Bennett a challenge.

“Can you stop him?” Berry asked, after watching video of Vermont Frost Heaves sharpshooter Joe Nixon torching the Rainmen for 36 points in January.

The answer was a resounding yes. Bennett stuck it to Nixon, limiting him to just seven points and two field goal attempts, helping the Rainmen to a huge win.

“He wanted to know, ‘Do I have it in me?’” Bennett said. “I didn’t take it as a challenge. It was just what I had to do on the court … But seven points, a 29-point drop-off, that’s huge.”

Oh yeah, and the six-foot Bennett also drained 28 points — all in the second half — to pad his team-leading scoring average to 21.3 per game, good for fifth in the Premier Basketball League. He’s also averaging 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals.

Bennett, a lightning-quick, score-first guard, has been a jolt of energy since signing four games ago.

“The kid’s a talent,” said Berry, who took an instant liking to Bennett and played him a team-high 37 minutes.

The 24-year-old from Chicago played two years of NCAA Division I at Bradley University in 2004-05 and 2005-06, averaging 11.1 points per game. He went to the Sweet 16 in 2006, what he describes as the highlight of his career.

He played in Finland and Mexico before coming to Halifax, but said he made some important changes to his game while playing summer-league ball in Chicago last year.

“My game got mature, I see things different,” he said. “I ain’t just about going full speed. I just take it in, kind of lackadaisical, but I’m not being lazy. I toned my game down.”

Bennett said he had an invitation to the Chicago Bulls’ camp last fall, but it didn’t work out.

He’s hopeful he might get a look with another NBA team with a strong season.

Even if he doesn’t, he’s enjoying his minor-pro journey.

“I’ve always described this as a paid vacation,” said Bennett.

“When I’m out there, between those lines, no matter what’s going on in the economy or in my life, nothing really matters. I’m my happiest when I’m out there playing.”

Weekend games
• The Halifax Rainmen (7-5) host the Detroit Panthers (2-6) on Friday at 7 p.m. and the Quebec Kebs (2-7) on Sunday at 2 p.m.

• With struggling opponents in town, the third-place Rainmen could finish the weekend atop the Premier Basketball League’s Atlantic Conference with a couple of victories.

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