Monday, January 30, 2012

Delaware-JMU lives up to the hype

No. 15 Delaware 72, James Madison 65

Now that was fun, wasn't it?

That was one heck of a show No. 15 Delaware and James Madison treated Convocation Center fans and a regional television audience to Sunday night. The Blue Hens (18-1, 9-0) proved they can take a punch - several of them, in fact - regroup and prevail in a hostile environment. Meanwhile, the Dukes (15-5, 6-3) showed that for about 32 minutes they can stand up to, and for large stretches outplay, one of the nation's elite teams..

But if the Dukes want to make this a special season, they need to get those final eight minutes under control against top competition. So far, we'd say the two best teams the Dukes have played are Virginia and Delaware. See if you can spot any similarities in how the two games unfolded:

Dec. 20, at Virginia
   - JMU led 30-22 at halftime
   - JMU up by 6 with 8:22 remaining
   - JMU outscored 17-5 the rest of the way

Jan. 29, vs. Delaware
   - JMU led 38-33 at halftime
   - JMU up 7 with 7:19 to play
   - JMU outscored 21-7 the rest of the way

It's only two games, so perhaps it's just coincidence. Still, we can't help but wonder, do the Dukes play so hard that they wind up burning themselves out down the stretch? Does foul trouble mount to the point where starters become passive to avoid fouling out? We don't have the answers, but we're sure the law firm of Brooks, Smith, Brown and O'Regan (plus Clark) is already on the case.

   - Delaware superstar Elena Delle Donne's shot 5 for 17 from the field Sunday night. The last time she faced JMU, in the 2011 CAA Tournament final, she was 6 for 20. The time before that, she made 4 of 16 shots. That's 15 for 53 shooting (28.3 percent) over a three-game span for one of the nation's most prolific offensive weapons. To Delle Donne's credit, she's been crafty enough to get to the free throw line 40 times in the three games (including 15 times Sunday night), and the Dukes haven't been able to do anything to stop her from converting 36 times. Still, it seems clear that the Dukes make it tougher for Delle Donne to get hers that just about anyone else. Which is just the latest reason why we're starting to wonder....

   - Shouldn't Nikki Newman make the All-CAA team? We used to say, well, if she just scored a few more points..." But the Dukes keep assigning her to the their opponents' most dangerous scorers, and those players keep having "off nights." And it occurs to us that a player that can make that kind of defensive impact night in and night out is probably just as valuable - perhaps even more so - than a lot of the players that are averaging 15-18 points a game and get their names in  the first paragraphs of the game stories. So we're starting a campaign - Nikki Newman for All-CAA.

The only problem is, we don't have numbers to back this up. So hey, Nikki, if you get a chance, could you just score a few more points?

   - It's a shame these teams won't meet again in the regular season. The key for JMU now is to delay any potential postseason meeting with the Blue Hens for as long as possible. Sunday's loss dropped the Dukes into a third-place tie in the conference standings with Drexel (which already owns a win over JMU). Let's say the Blue Hens hang onto their CAA lead and claim the tournament's No. 1 seed. If the Dukes wind up as the No. 4 seed, they'd be slated to meet Delaware in the semifinals. After the performance the Dukes turned in Sunday, we're sure they're eager for a rematch. They just don't want it to happen that soon.

   - Finally, kudos to the 4,637 that turned out at the JMU Convocation Center to create a big-game atmosphere. It looked great on TV; sounded even better. Bet CAA officials were thrilled to have this as its showcase game.

Here's hoping for even more drama in the second half of the CAA schedule.

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