HARRISONBURG — Members of the James Madison women’s basketball team look back at last March’s stunning Colonial Athletic Association quarterfinal loss to Hofstra, and tend to agree it was a blessing in disguise.

Yes, the Dukes wanted nothing more than to go to the NCAA Tournament after cruising through the CAA regular season with a 17-1 record, but the subsequent WNIT semifinal run gave JMU the opportunity to beat former Madison coach Kenny Brooks and Virginia Tech and provided a few younger Dukes valuable experience.

And the barrage of injuries that led to eighth-seeded Hofstra knocking off the Dukes may have only made JMU stronger for the upcoming season, particularly in the case of the team’s star, Kamiah Smalls.

“I think Kamiah has taken her game up a whole other level,” JMU coach Sean O’Regan said. “I’ve been really proud of her.”

Smalls looked to many like a lock to earn the CAA’s Player of the Year award last season before a late season injury limited her effectiveness and chiseled away at her stat line.

The rising senior from Philadelphia finished with averages of 15.9 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists, numbers that took a dip after playing a total of 10 scoreless minutes in two games against Delaware and Hofstra after breaking her hand late in the season.

Smalls returned to play four of the Dukes’ five games in the WNIT, but never at full strength.

“When I’m out for a day, I miss it too much to not want to be out there,” Smalls said. “I definitely wasn’t 100 percent during the WNIT. I could have been higher. But (team trainer Jessica Colborne) has done an amazing job getting everybody back and healthy. Just making sure our bodies are up to par for such a long season.”

But after some recovery time early in the spring, Smalls returned to the court with a vengeance. She spent the days in late July, which the coaching staff intended as some final summer vacation time for the Dukes before they began practice this month a four-game European tour, in Harrisonburg putting herself through grueling workouts.

Even in the early summer, before the right hand was fully healed, Smalls spent her time working on new moves with her weak side.

“When I got hurt, I just tried to get better with my left,” Smalls said. “I just really focused on that. It was what it was and I had to play with the cards I was dealt, but when I went down with my right, I just had to make my left stronger.”

Not that she ever needed extra incentive to add to her repertoire, but coming off the heartbreaking loss in the CAA Tournament, plus the league MVP snub, there’s been plenty of motivation Smalls in the offseason with the past two CAA Players of the Year — Delaware’s Nicole Enobosi and Drexel’s Bailey Greenberg — both returning.

“I’ve just been grinding all summer, working on new things” Smalls said with a laugh. “But let’s not give away all my secrets here.”

Contact Shane Mettlen

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