James Madison trailed Central Florida in the fourth quarter Sunday afternoon, putting the Dukes in serious danger of dropping consecutive games for the first time in nearly a year.
It might have been a devastating way to head into an exam break of more than two weeks. But in a span of 50 seconds, JMU center Kayla Cooper-Williams pulled down two offensive rebounds, made a pair of free throws and had a putback for four consecutive points to put the Dukes ahead, 37-34.
JMU held on for the victory in Charlottesville over a solid team from the American Athletic Conference thanks in no small part to the boost from Cooper-Williams. Though she’s averaging less than eight points per game, the 6-foot-2 senior has proven to be a big part of the Dukes offense thanks to her work on the glass.
“I thought Kayla had the best performance of the year,” JMU coach Sean O’Regan said a day after Cooper-Williams had eight points, 16 rebounds and two blocks against the Knights. “I thought she was a monster yesterday. In so many different ways, rebounding, blocking shots, toughness, I thought she was an absolute monster.”
After averaging more than 10 rebounds per game last season, Cooper-Williams is pulling down 8.8 a contest so far in 2019-20 with close to four per contest coming on the offensive end. It’s a big reason why JMU (6-2) is getting the rebound on 38 percent of its own misses.
Sunday, the Dukes outscored UCF 16-5 on second-chance points and every one was critical as JMU squeezed out a three-point victory.
It’s a popular saying that the best rebounders succeed through a combination of hustle and heart, but Cooper-Williams and her coaches have acknowledged there’s also more going on as the Dumfries product has also used size and scouting to gain an advantage on the offensive glass.
“We have the same team from last year, except for little differences,” Cooper-Williams said. “So we’ve been working a lot in practice on rebounding from different positions maybe people aren’t used to. When we’re playing defense and rebounding we are where we need to be, but you’ve seen that when we don’t our game is not at its best.”
In her fifth year at JMU, Cooper-Williams has also developed into a more vocal leader and confidant to the coaching staff. Improved communication has also added to her mental edge as she regularly finds herself in the right spot to make a key play.
“You’re talking about one of the smarter kids that I think has been through this program in understanding the scout,” O’Regan said. “She’s really worked to understand when to block a shot, when not to block a shot. Her ability to work on the glass and to work blocking shots is what makes her so successful.
“It’s not reactionary. It’s putting her feet in the right position to go get a rebound. That’s what makes her special. She’s athletic enough, but a lot of good athletes out there don’t do the early work to go get the rebound or block a shot.”