A Tough Out

JMU’s Nemesis Visits Convo

Posted: January 23, 2014

HARRISONBURG — The last two seasons, the Colonial Athletic Association women’s basketball champion has been undefeated in conference play. It was Elena Delle Donne-led Delaware both years. The Blue Hens went 18-0 both in 2011-12 and 2012-13, part of a 44-game conference win streak that James Madison ended Jan 12.

It’s still early in 2013-14, but the Dukes — the preseason favorites — are making another undefeated CAA season seem possible.

It’s also one of the last things coach Kenny Brooks probably wants to hear, just three games into the Colonial schedule.

“For anyone to go undefeated for the whole year, that’s a monumental task. Sometimes you need an Olympian to do that,” said Brooks, referring to Delle Donne, now in the WNBA.

The Dukes (13-4 overall, 3-0 in the CAA) host rival Drexel (8-8, 3-0) today at 7 p.m. in a matchup of the only two teams still unbeaten in Colonial play. Dragons coach Denise Dillon said it’s too soon to worry about anyone making a perfect trip through the CAA.

“It’s too early in the season,” said Dillon, who guided the Dragons to the WNIT title last season after eliminating JMU in the CAA tournament semifinals. “… You’re four games into conference play. Is it a big game? Absolutely, but what we tell our players when we finish whatever the last game was … we talk about the next game being the biggest game of the year.”

Yeah, yeah, one game at a time, but today’s matchup is still a crucial early-season contest between two of the CAA’s most consistently top-tier teams.

JMU looks like it could run away with the Colonial. It’s outscoring league opponents by a conference-best 22.7 points per game. It blasted two-time defending champ Delaware by 36 points. The Dukes lead the CAA in scoring (73.4 ppg), scoring margin (plus-15.2 ppg), free-throw percentage (75.1), field-goal percentage (42.9), rebounding margin (plus-10.1) and blocked shots (5.8 per game).

Individually, Madison also has the CAA’s leading scorer: Kirby Burkholder. The 6-foot senior shooting guard from Bridgewater is averaging 18.4 points a game.

The Dukes have best RPI rating of any CAA team. They’re No. 44. Drexel is next closest at 83. No other team is higher than 118 (College of Charleston).

But the Dragons always give JMU problems. Their methodical and often boring motion offense that controls possessions and the clock is frustrating to defend (it’s an offense Dillon took from Villanova, where she played). Their zone defense, as methodical and boring as their offense, is one of JMU’s least favorites to play. In the two teams’ last meeting, Drexel held JMU to just 34 points overall and 19.4 percent shooting in the second half.

The Dukes play a contrasting up-tempo game, and while comfortable in half-court sets, they like to run, too. The opposing styles have helped make the James Madison-Drexel matchup one of the better rivalries in the CAA. And there’s the fact that the Dukes have been eliminated by Drexel in the CAA semifinals the past two seasons. The Dragons also have won four out of the last six games after JMU won three straight.

Drexel graduated four seniors from year’s team, including leading scorer and noted JMU killer Hollie Mershon, but that didn’t stop Dillon from playing a tough preseason schedule that featured five major-conference opponents. The Dragons went 2-3, including a six-point loss to Maryland, currently ranked sixth.

“They were certainly competitive [games, but you’re counting on players who have never been in a position — end-of-game situations — and you’re asking them to finish the game off for you, to make a play, and they just weren’t ready,” said Dillon, in her 11th season. “I think it was different last year and the year before, winning those games with the ball in your hands the last possession, and this year, losing them with the players who are just, again, not comfortable or experienced enough to know what sort of looks they’re going to get in the end.”

The Dragons, in rebuilding mode, are led by 5-11 freshman forward Sarah Curran. She leads Drexel in scoring, averaging 11 points a game.

“Very aggressive, but she’s a little bit raw,” Brooks said of Curran.

Drexel leads the CAA in scoring defense, allowing just 55 points per game. JMU is third at 58.2. 

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