HARRISONBURG — In Saturday’s win over College of Charleston, James Madison’s difference maker wasn’t one of the big four sophomores. Nor was it senior Andrey Semenov.
Freshman guard Jackson Kent – who played 31 minutes in Charles Cooke’s absence – scored a career-high 17 points and nailed three 3’s as the Dukes snapped a four-game losing streak with a 58-56 win over the Cougars in front of 3,987 people at the Convocation Center.
“We needed stops, stops, stops and we were letting guys like Jackson Kent and some guys that we would we could normally stop have a factor in the game,” Charleston forward Willis Hall said. “When you let guys like that get out of control and be difference makers, you can tell it’s a huge difference.”
Hall, an established senior averaging 11.7 points per game, dropped 22 on the Dukes on Saturday, but his performance was overshadowed by Kent’s surprise performance on the other side.
Since sophomore Andre Nation returned from suspension in the first Charleston game on Jan. 7, Kent had averaged just 16 minutes a game and had made just two field goals.
He broke out of his shell Saturday to give the Dukes (7-13 overall and 2-4 in the Colonial Athletic Association) a much-needed lift.
“I think it’s a big deal, and give him credit for persevering through lineup changes and minutes being up and down,” JMU coach Matt Brady said. “This is kind of what he did the whole month of November and December, so I’m grateful he did it. I’m sure he feels like the weight of the world is off his shoulders a little bit.”
Kent scored seven points in the first half, but his biggest buckets came when the game was on the line. With 10:25 left in the game, Kent hit a 3-pointer to start a 10-3 JMU run in which he scored all 10 JMU points. The Dukes led 52-48 and never gave up the lead.
“After the first few shots went down I felt good and I just stayed confident and took smart shots and didn’t try and force anything,” the rangy 6-7 Kent said. “I haven’t shot it that well the past few games, but I’ve been practicing and working and stuff and getting more shots up, so I’m definitely more confident now.”
With Cooke battling a high-ankle sprain, Brady and the Dukes need to replace his 15.1 points per game.
JMU’s answer: 44 combined points from its backcourt of Kent, Nation and sophomore point guard Ron Curry. Nation and Curry added 15 and 12 points, respectively.
“They outscored us in the backcourt 44-11,” Charleston coach Doug Wojcik said. “That’s the game.”
The Dukes trailed Charleston by as many as eight in the first half before closing the period on a 9-0 run.
Neither team shot the ball particularly well. The Cougars (11-10, 3-3) shot 43 percent, 23.8% from long-range and 68.4 percent from the line.
The Dukes shot 40.9 percent and 61.5 percent from the foul line. The lack of consistent shooting was overcome by their best 3-point shooting of the season (6-of-12).
“We played at least 30 minutes tonight hard tonight instead of playing 20,” Nation said. “We came out and won the first half and let up a little bit in the second half, but we fought back. We had way more fight and way more heart. That’s what put us over the edge.”
Although the Dukes left the Convo happy, the game could have easily ended like their other heartbreakers this season.
Charleston big man Adjehi Baru cut the JMU lead to 57-56 with two free throws with 28 seconds left in the game before Curry made 1 of 2 free throws. Trailing by two with 23 seconds, Charleston ran a play for Baru under the basket, but the Dukes double-teamed him, forcing him to pass it out to Anthony Stitt for an off-balance 3-pointer at the buzzer that fell short.
“Obviously if the shot goes in at the end we’re really disappointed, but I thought it was a hard fought game on both ends, and we came up one or two points more than them,” Brady said. “…We’re certainly excited to get the win at home. I felt like our kids needed some positive affirmation for a good week of practice.”
Madison’s win was far from perfect, but it makes teaching a whole lot more enjoyable, Brady said.
“We can learn from winning now on tape just as much as you can from losing,” Brady said. “I’m happy to have that opportunity.”
JMU travels to Boston on Wednesday for a 7 p.m. CAA contest at Northeastern. The Dukes lost to the Huskies 56-52 on Jan. 15.