Sunday, February 10, 2013

Can JMU topple mighty Delaware?

Brace yourselves for yet another chapter in what in recent years has been the Colonial Athletic Association's most compelling rivalry.

Interesting stuff often happens when JMU tangles with Delaware, from then-freshman Elena Delle Donne's "Hello, World" 54-point explosion at JMU in an overtime Dukes victory to JMU stopping the Blue Hens' surprising CAA Tournament run in the 2011 final to last year, when JMU led seemingly unbeatable Delaware for 32 minutes before the Blue Hens rallied for a seven-point victory.

If nothing else, conference history will almost certainly be made when the teams square off Sunday at 2 p.m. at the JMU Convocation Center. Delle Donne has 2,557 points and needs just 11 more to eclipse former Dukes superstar Dawn Evans as the CAA's all-time leading scorer. Evans played in 125 career games; Sunday will mark Delle Donne's 100th contest as a Blue Hen.

In addition, Delle Donne also needs only 11 free throws to surpass ex-Drexel star Gabriela Marginean's conference record of 684 from the line, and only 7 field goals to top Marginean's CAA-record total of 904.

Of course, as was the case when JMU survived that 54-point explosion four years ago, the Dukes would gladly cede all the individual accolades to Delle Donne if they can get it done as a team. After a rocky start to the 2012-13 season, the Dukes (15-7, 9-1 CAA) have clearly found their groove as they've won eight straight and 12 of their last 13. Remarkably, this streak began immediately after JMU lost reigning CAA Defensive Player of the Year and team catalyst Nikki Newman for the season to a foot injury.

Still, Newman's absence may be most clearly felt against these Blue Hens. What separated Newman from other defensive specialists was her ability to stymie elite scorers. In her last three games against JMU the usually-efficient Delle Donne made just 15 of 53 shots (28.3 percent), in large part because Newman made her work so hard to get looks. This season Delle Donne is shooting 48.8 percent from the field and is connecting at a 56.9 percent clip over her last seven games. If she approaches that number Sunday, the Dukes can probably cancel Christmas.

Indeed, the only team hotter than the Dukes of late has been these Blue Hens (19.3, 10-0), who have won 14 in a row since a Dec. 20 loss to Maryland and are basically chewing up and spitting out all CAA comers. Only Drexel (a 65-56 loser on Jan. 27) has avoided a double-digit loss to Delaware, which has won its 10 conference games by an average of 24.3 points. The Blue Hens have also won 31 straight games against CAA foes since the Dukes prevailed in that 2011 CAA tournament final.

In addition to dealing with Delle Donne, the Dukes must figure out some way to score against one of the nation's stingiest defenses. The Blue Hens rank fifth nationally in scoring defense (49.7 ppg) and seventh in Division I in field goal percentage defense (32.6).

If all of this seems to be pointing to the Dukes being fairly significant underdogs on paper, well, they are. But if there's one thing we've learned in following JMU under coach Kenny Brooks it's that his teams are often capable of efforts that defy the numbers. In November, for example, the Dukes went up against a Green Bay team that statistically is even stingier that Delaware. The Phoenix have held 14 of its 21 opponents to 49 points or less and all but one to 62 or less. That one was JMU, which hung 89 on Green Bay in a three-point overtime victory.

We not expecting the Dukes to go off like that again. But again, interesting things happen when these teams get together. Can't wait to see how this latest edition unfolds.

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