James Madison certainly doesn’t mind a close game. The Dukes responded from their first loss of the season by pulling out their fourth squeaker in five games, rallying to beat Wright State 78-76 Tuesday, the second day of the Naples Invitational in Naples, Fla.
JMU (5-1) found itself in a deep hole early, falling behind by 15 points in the first half before taking over the game in the second to get the victory after falling to Kent State in the tournament opener 24 hours earlier.
The Dukes opened the season with a 95-point victory against NAIA Carlow
“We weren’t ourselves in the first half,” JMU coach Mark Byington said. “We were a step slow. Mentally, just weren’t as focused as normal. Sometimes when you are that way for a game it is hard to pull yourself out of it. I was proud of the guys, they showed just enough togetherness and toughness to pull their way out of it.”
Justin Amadi finished with 16 points to become the fifth Dukes player to lead the team in scoring in six games. Vado Morse warmed up in the second half to add 14 and Takal Molson finished with 11 points, five rebounds and four assists.
Tanner Holden had 25 points and Grant Basile had 19 to lead Wright State, but the Dukes were able to keep both standouts mostly in check during the second half.
“I think we responded well at halftime,” Molson said. “Coach talked to us and I was getting guys wound up at halftime. I think we just responded and it was a big character test for us. We have multiple waves of leadership. Even our freshmen say what they see on the bench and we can all respond to it. It all falls on trust.”
Holden, who came in averaging 21.3 points per game, was hot again to start for Wright State. The junior guard made his first four shots to score eight quick points and the Raiders had an 11-point lead barely five minutes into the game.
As the half wore on, the Dukes had no answer for Holden and he was able to create opportunities for the big man Basile. By halftime, Holden and Basille had combined to put up 31 points and eight rebounds as the Raiders led by as many as 15.
JMU settled in a bit offensively and started forcing some Wright State turnovers to keep the Raiders from running away with it before intermission. Despite missing nine of 10 3-pointers in the opening 20 minutes, JMU cut the lead to single digits on a couple of occasions and went to halftime trailing 46-36.
The second half began with JMU playing more like the Dukes had early in the season. A bucket while fouled from Amadi and a 3-pointer from Morse were part of a 10-0 run to start the half as JMU tied the game less than two minutes in.
“The first four minutes of the second half kind of dictated the tone,” Byington said. “The rest of the game was kind of hit or miss, a good battle with a good team. We were fortunate to be able to avoid some disaster late in the game.”
From there it was a back-and-forth struggle. The Dukes took their first lead of the game, 62-61, after a steal and breakaway layup from Charles Falden with 10:47 to go, but neither team could get too comfortable down the stretch.
A pair of free throws from Morse gave the Dukes a six point lead with less than five minutes to go, but Wright State came back with five straight points. After exchanging leads again, JMU took the lead for good with less than two minutes to go on a corner 3-pointer by Charles Falden, the Winthrop transfer who has now made game-changing plays late in four of JMU’s six contests.
The Dukes will face either Murray State or Long Beach State in the Naples Invitational fifth-place game Wednesday at approximately 2:30 p.m.