James Madison was not spared adversity in its season opener Wednesday night at the Convocation Center, and in the face of it showed a glimpse of why hope around Harrisonburg in Louis Rowe’s fourth season as coach at his alma mater might be his breakout.
The Dukes survived injury and foul trouble to two of their leading returning players plus a rocky start on both ends of the floor to pull off a 79-74 victory over the Charlotte 49ers.
A season-opening victory that didn’t come easy was made more challenging from the start as junior power forward Dwight Wilson, who averaged 10.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game last season, came out of the locker room in a large protective walking boot on his right leg.
Another junior Zach Jacobs, got the start in his absence and filled in quite nicely, scoring 15 points, grabbing six rebounds and blocking two shots. Matt Lewis finished with a game-high 22 points for the Dukes and helped make up for an uncharacteristically poor free-throw shooting night with a career-high 13 rebounds.
“Forty eight hours ago we had a totally different game plan and a totally different rotation,” Rowe said. “You think about [Wilson] going down and Banks getting in foul trouble, I thought we were adrift a little bit. But the guys that are on my bench just said ‘settle down.’”
Rowe said Wilson has a high ankle sprain and didn’t offer a timetable for his return with a game at defending national champion Virginia looming Sunday.
Perhaps feeling some nerves as the season began, the Dukes were long on a handful of shots from close range early in the game and fell behind by 12 midway through the first half. But JMU soon settled in and switched to a 2-3 zone that gave the 49ers fits.
That led to a 9-0 run capped by a corner 3-pointer from Darius Banks.
Even going just 5-for-11 from the free throw line in the opening period, JMU went to the locker room at halftime trailing only 36-35. And despite foul trouble for Banks, who along with Lewis was a preseason All-Colonial Athletic Association pick, the Dukes turned it into a back-and-forth affair in the second before eventually opening up a lead.
Banks went to the bench after earning his fourth foul with less than 16 minutes to go and sat for the next 12 minutes.
“It shows a lot about the resilience of this team,” Lewis said. “We’ve got guys, even freshmen, that came in and played a lot a big minutes with [Banks] being out. It shows the fight we have, which we had the first two years, but we were able to come out with the win tonight.”
Lewis’ All-CAA credentials were on full display in the absence of Banks and Wilson, crashing the boards and making four straight free throws to secure a game in which he went just 7-for-14 from the line overall.
But it was Parker in particular who stepped up to fill the scoring void. The sophomore point guard matched a career high with 17 points, making 5-of-6 field goal attempts in the second half.
Rowe also found himself counting on freshmen getting their first real college experience.
Michael Christmas got the start and finished with nine points and six rebounds while Jayvis Harvey found himself playing critical second-half minutes with Banks on the bench and came up with some key plays, including a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws to give the Dukes a nine-point lead.
“That’s the confidence I have in these guys, and that’s the confidence they have in themselves,” Rowe said. “We put in the work. We’ve battled through adversity before and I have no problem playing young guys. I think we have some guys who respond to the way that we coach them, but we’ve got to keep building on it.”