CHARLOTTESVILLE — It might have been an awfully long two weeks coming up for Kamiah Smalls and her James Madison teammates. But the preseason Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year came up huge in the final minute Sunday as the Dukes slipped past Central Florida, 46-43, to save a weekend split at the Cavalier Classic.
Smalls, who came into the weekend averaging more than 20 points per game, was held scoreless in the first half as JMU was staring two-consecutive losses in the face heading into an extra-long break for exams.
But the senior from Philadelphia nailed a deep 3-pointer off the dribble as the shot clock expired to put the Dukes ahead 46-42 with 21 seconds left. Smalls finished with a season-low six points, but JMU needed them all as UCF had an opportunity to tie it in the closing moments.
“If there was anybody I trust with the ball down the stretch, it’s Kamiah,” JMU coach Sean O’Regan said. “I don’t care if she has zero points or 35 points, I want her to shoot that shot.”
Jackie Benitez finished with 13 points for the Dukes and Devon Merritt added eight, all in the first half, as that duo kept UCF from running away with the game early.
In the second half, fellow senior Kayla Cooper-Williams came up huge for JMU, finishing with eight points, 16 rebounds and two blocked shots. Back-to-back offensive rebounds and four straight points from Cooper-Williams in the second half gave James Madison the lead after trailing almost the entire way.
“We lost (Saturday) on a game when we didn’t play how we wanted to play,” Cooper-Williams said. “So we wanted to end this game on a strong note and come out with a win. It doesn’t fix losing to U.Va., but we definitely makes you feel a little bit better coming into the week with a win.”
The Dukes (6-2) entered the weekend with an opportunity to boost their non-conference resume and perhaps even climb into the Top 25 after receiving votes in the coaches’ poll all season.
But Saturday continued JMU’s struggles on the road against middling ACC programs. JMU got off to a terrible start against host Virginia, but used an 11-0 run in the second quarter to take a lead it held late into the fourth quarter.
Similar to last-season’s last-second loss at Wake Forest — which ultimately played a significant role in the Dukes missing the NCAA Tournament — JMU couldn’t hold onto the lead late and the Cavaliers escaped with a 55-49 victory.
Still, O’Regan’s team entered Sunday’s game with an opportunity to salvage the weekend against a UCF team that spent all of last season ranked in the Top 25 and should once again be in the top tier of the American Athletic Conference.
As has been the case each time the Dukes, who don’t take the court again until Dec. 17 against Delaware State, have ventured outside their own Convocation Center, Sunday once again saw the need to overcome a slow start.
“I don’t think we are playing great,” O’Regan said. “We’re winning some games, but we know we have stuff to work on. We’ve got to work on our rebounding and defense. All that stuff is on display now.”
While neither JMU nor Central Florida was lighting it up in the first half — each team went to locker room with nine turnovers while shooting 30-percent or worse from the field — the Knights got to the free throw line early to hold a 21-17 advantage at the intermission.
But even with Smalls struggling, fellow seniors Benitez and Merritt did enough to keep JMU in the game and a 3-pointer from Benitez put the Dukes on top 27-26 midway through the third quarter and the teams went back and forth from there before Smalls and Cooper-Williams made the big plays to put JMU on top and keep it there.
“The biggest thing we need to work on when we get back to school is starting games much better,” Smalls said. “This wasn’t the first game and yesterday wasn’t even the first game we’ve started out by getting down. It definitely shows our heart though, because every situation we’ve been down this year we’ve found our way back.”