Saturday, March 31, 2012

While JMU falls in the WNIT, future bright for overachieving Dukes

It was an amazing run by the James Madison Dukes that almost turned into a national championship.

Instead, Oklahoma State is the one celebrating after a 75-68 victory over the Dukes in the WNIT title game played in Stillwater before more than 6,157 fans.

What worked for JMU all year -- a defense ranked fifth in the NCAA -- had little success against these Cowgirls, who shot 48 percent from the field led by Toni Young's 25 and Tiffany Bias' 17. An early JMU lead evaporated after Oklahoma State went on a 17-4 run.

While JMU got 16 second-half points from Tarik Hislop, 14 from Kiara Francisco, 13 from Nikki Newman and 10 from Lauren Whitehurst, finding offense was a problem most of the afternoon. Kirby Burkholder, who averaged 18 in the previous five games of the tournament, was held to eight, but credit her for a monster 25-footer that allowed JMU to hang close in the waning minutes.

The Dukes dug a hole that ballooned to 18 and spent the entire second half trying to climb out of it, trimming it to four behind the kind of effort we've seen many times this season -- gritty offense and shots that fall in the 11th hour. This time, though, there weren't quite enough of them and the Cowgirls -- who dedicated their season to coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna, both tragically killed in a plane crash on Nov. 17 -- won a national title for the first time in their history. Budke's wife, Shelley, cut down a piece of the net.

"When you come into a venue like this and a situation like this, you can't have lulls," said JMU coach Kenny Brooks. "We had some lulls, and I thought that was the big difference. But give them credit. Toni was probably the best center we've played against all year. She was tremendous and (Tiffany) Bias was probably the best point guard we've played against all year."

While we know it must sting to come so close, we know even better what an amazing job this Dukes team and Brooks have put together this season. No Dawn Evans. No Lauren Jimenez or Courtney Hamner, and yet JMU was a legitimate contender for the NCAA Tournament. They had nights where offense seemed as impossible to find as a purple people eater, and still won a school-record 29 games, knocking off Virginia, Syracuse and Wake Forest in the WNIT alone.

Consider that a year ago, the Dukes touted the top recruiting class in the CAA and one ESPN ranked 40th nationally. Achiri Ade did not come. Jazmon Gwalthmey redshirted. Crystal Ross and Tanika Anderson played sparingly and Briana Jones, not at all. Toia Giggetts emerged as the star from the group, but the larger point is Brooks crafted a far different team than he anticipated having. Starting over after losing seniors who were instrumental in back-to-back CAA championship often means using the word "rebuilding" a lot.

The Dukes are rebuilt. In the end, they were a championship-caliber team and one that leaves us eager for a 2012-13 season full of promise.


  1. Dawn Evans was a great player that had a great supporting cast, but I would venture to say that this years team was actually a better overall team. I was wondering about Anderson and if she was red shirting along with Jones, guess not. Anyway, I think next year is going to be a very special year for the Dukes. The sad thing is, JMU will be graduating at least 4 seniors next year, maybe 5 if you count Anderson. But the underclassmen are just as talented if not more so. Way to go Dukes, proud of you!

  2. Kenny Brooks is the best women's coach in Virginia, and one of the best in the country, and last season proved it. Achiri Ade (a 4-star recruit rated "92" by ESPN) did not academically qualify at JMU, so she played an outstanding year at Midland Junior College, and is expected to transfer to JMU in time for the 2013-14 season. This past season Kenny signed what ESPN has identified as the best "mid-major" recruiting class in the country, adding two more 4 star recruits. The talent at JMU's WBB program just keeps getting better and better, and the 2012-2013 should be a battle with Delaware for the CAA championship, and then on to the NCAA tourney for both teams.