HARRISONBURG — A.J. Davis is naturally a quiet guy, and he hasn’t said a negative word publicly about being benched and then suspended for a game for what James Madison basketball coach Matt Brady deemed to be selfish on-court play.
If there was any built-up tension from the fifth-year senior’s strange two weeks, Davis channeled it and took it out on the Convocation Center rims Wednesday night.
Highlighting his return performance with several jaw-dropping jams, Davis scored a season-high 17 points in 24 minutes off the bench in his first game back, helping the Dukes dismantle undermanned East Tennessee State 70-45 in front of a sparse crowd of 2,599.
“I’m like a kid at a birthday party receiving a bunch of gifts,” Davis said of returning to the court after he missed Saturday’s game because of the suspension.
Davis also made three 3-pointers in a second half that was rendered moot after JMU stormed out a rare fast start.
By far JMU’s most complete performance of the season, the Dukes (3-5), in what point guard Devon Moore dubbed “a statement win,” notched their first victory of 20-plus points since the 2010-11 season. They also earned consecutive wins for the first time since last December – and did so in true team fashion.
Freshman Andre Nation had 11 points, five steals, five rebounds and three blocked shots; Moore had seven points, six assists, four steals and three rebounds; forwards Rayshawn Goins and Enoch Hood had nine points and five rebounds apiece; and forwards Andrey Semenov and Alioune Diouf each had six points and seven rebounds.
“I think our team needed to see that playing unselfishly and playing for each other can be fun,” Brady said. “That locker room was excited about their effort, and they were excited about their effort on the defensive end. … We have some good players that, really tonight, for the first time, found out how fun it can be to play with each other and to share the ball and play with great energy defensively.”
JMU limited the Bucs to 28.8 percent shooting.
Depleted by injuries and its own suspensions, ETSU (2-4) had just eight players in uniform – one a walk-on, another limited because of an ankle injury.
Using a pressing defense, the Dukes ravaged the Buccaneers’ incapable ballhandlers and jumped out to a 14-2 lead. JMU never trailed in the game.
“They were like sharks,” ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. “They saw it, smelled it and came at us aggressively, and that led to a lot of first-half turnovers.”
The Bucs had 11 turnovers in the first half (courtesy of eight JMU steals), the last giveaway leading to another Madison highlight.
Nation blocked an ETSU 3-point attempt with about six seconds left, corralled the loose ball and lightly stuffed it into the hoop just before the buzzer to conclude Madison’s best half of the season. The Dukes led 36-20 at the break.
Brady called it one of the best plays he’s seen at the Convo. His team added some more after intermission.
Moore and Davis nearly connected on an alley-oop that would have been the play of the year, but Davis later had his own solo dunk that was almost as sweet.
“He took the rim down,” Moore said of the gliding slam.
JMU started the second half on a 19-1 run to grab a massive 32-point advantage.
Much of JMU’s success defensively came by frustrating ETSU forward Lester Wilson, a redshirt freshman who entered the game leading the nation in scoring among rookies with a 19.4 average. While he scored 21 against JMU, he shot just 7-for-23, as the Dukes fronted him in the post and sometimes brought three defenders whenever he caught the ball.
Davis, who entered the game 4:56 into the first half, immediately took on the responsibility of guarding Wilson. Within three possessions, he had already forced a jump ball and blocked a shot.
Brady praised Davis’ defense after the game, and was overwhelmingly happy with the player’s effort.
“His effort was terrific all around and his attitude was just as good, if not better,” Brady said.
“…I thought tonight, everybody played for the team on just about every possession,” Brady said earlier, not directly referencing Davis but alluding to the issue that prompted him to suspend the erratic star. “Not one guy took a shot or made a play thinking about themselves. That’s something we’ve talked about as a team: Let’s buy into a team concept. I think they saw the power of it tonight.”