Thursday, March 29, 2012

JMU tops Syracuse, reaches WNIT final

The irony is, if James Madison had gotten these kinds of wins during the regular season, they wouldn't be in the WNIT.

They didn't - at least in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament committee - so they are. And now they find themselves one game away from a national championship.

Force into something of a shootout, the defense-first Dukes proved they could succeed at that style, too, as four players scored in double figures to lead JMU past Syracuse 74-71 Wednesday before a rollicking crowd of 4,008 at the JMU Convocation Center.

After five straight victories at home, the Dukes will travel to Stillwater, Okla. for Saturday's 3 p.m. title game against Oklahoma State (21-12). The Cowgirls advanced with a 73-57 victory over San Diego in Wednesday's other semifinal.

All season long, the Dukes (29-7) made hay with shutdown defense, and this might have worked Wednesday if Syracuse's 6-4 center Kayla Alexander had called in sick. Instead, Alexander reported for work and promptly worked over the Dukes in the paint, finishing with 29 points and 13 rebounds.

The Dukes kept returning fire, though, particularly during a second half in which they made 52 percent of their shots and erased a seven-point deficit. They also attacked the basket and were rewarded with 30 trips to the free throw line, where they converted 23 times.

Kirby Burkholder, who led the Dukes with 20 points in Sunday's victory over Virginia, led the way with a team-high 18 points against the 'Cuse. Tarik Hislop added 14, Lauren Whitehurst 12 and Nikki Newman 10 along with team high totals of 11 rebounds and four assists as the Dukes notched their program-record 29th victory.

The only downside of a Dukes' postseason run that has featured four victories over schools from the ACC and Big East is that it's likely made coach Kenny Brooks' job of trying to schedule teams like this in the future that much harder.

Don't feel too badly for Syracuse. The Orange had two players in Wednesday night's McDonald's All-American Game and will welcome the nation's No. 6 recruiting class (according to ESPN) to a roster that graduates only one significant contributor.

Meanwhile, the Dukes have one more task to complete this season. Oklahoma State (21-12) was revealed as one of the last four teams left out of the NCAA Tournament, along with Temple, Virginia and USC. Counting their five WNIT wins, the Cowgirls are 13-1 against non-conference foes this season. The loss came during a post-Christmas tournament in Las Vegas to Long Island 64-63 on a layup with two seconds remaining.

The Cowgirls believe they're playing for more than just themselves. One game into the season, head coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna died in a plane crash while returning from a recruiting trip in Arkansas. The players have dedicated the season, and this postseason run, to their memory.


  1. Yes, the Lady Dukes dropped some games that they should have won: most notably Towson, Northeastern, and Drexel, but they have "put it together" and had a great run in the WNIT. Not bad for a team with only one Senior starter. Congratulations to Kenny and all his ladies!!!

  2. No one here is knocking the Dukes for their regular season; we felt they should have gotten a bid even with those losses. The feeling here is the NCAA committee values victories over BCS schools more than they should. Thanks to the WNIT, the Dukes have picked up four of those. But to us, the Dukes have merely proven something the committee should have already known.

  3. Agree, the NCAA puts too much stock into the "power 6," and not enough on the good teams in other conferences.