Kamiah Smalls

Junior Kamiah Smalls has been one of the main guards leading the Dukes this year.

“Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to it.”

JMU women’s basketball can take much away from that quote from longtime college football coach Lou Holtz. The team couldn’t control the injuries to two of its three leading scorers and had no say in whether it made the Women’s NCAA tournament after falling to No. 9 Hofstra in the CAA quarterfinals.

The Dukes responded after receiving a bid as one of the top seeds in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament with three-straight wins — the latest coming Thursday over Virginia Tech, led by former head coach Kenny Brooks. With three more victories, JMU will win its first WNIT trophy in program history.

“We’re going to make this special,” junior guard Kamiah Smalls said. “We wanted it to be special in a different way of course, but we were dealt a hand and we’ve got to just play with it.”

At this point in the season, JMU women’s basketball is what it is — a scrappy, tough team that outhustles opponents and relies heavily on defense and making timely shots. The Dukes are second in the nation in scoring defense behind CAA foe Drexel. JMU’s defensive identity has carried it thus far in the WNIT; the Dukes have allowed just 52.3 points per game in its last three outings.

“Defense wins championships,” Smalls said. “I think that that’s been proven in many cases … our game plan [against Virginia Tech] was to go out there and lock ’em up as much as possible, and that’s what we did.”

In some ways, playing without junior guard Lexie Barrier, freshman guard Madison Green and Smalls in the conference tournament forced role players to carry more of the scoring burden. If JMU finishes strong and wins the WNIT, the loss to Hofstra may eventually be viewed as a blessing in disguise — a temporary setback that eventually made the team stronger.

“When we lost Lexie and Kamiah, it was sort of step-up time for everyone,” junior forward Devon Merritt said. “Now with Kamiah back, we have her added to us and all of our lifted confidences.”

JMU appears to be playing its best basketball of the season, but head coach Sean O’Regan said it didn’t look like it earlier in the week. In the postgame press conference, the third-year coach’s candor was refreshing. He didn’t think the team was at its strongest heading into Thursday’s 70-66 win over the Hokies, citing mental and physical fatigue as factors.

“To be very honest with you, practice did not give me that impression this week,” O’Regan said. “I was worried. Just because, it’s April almost … Logan practices like 20 minutes, she’s just hobbled. As soon as the season ends, she’s going to have a little surgery to fix some things up, but she’s able to get through.”

When JMU’s hitting from outside the 3-point arc, few teams can compete with the Dukes. However, when its shots aren’t falling — like against Hofstra in the CAA tournament — JMU struggles to separate from opponents. In all five of the team’s losses, the Dukes shot 35 percent or worse on 3-pointers.

JMU shot 37.5 percent from distance against Georgetown on Nov. 16 in a 69-57 home win just three games into the season. When the Dukes host the Hoyas on Sunday in the WNIT quarterfinals, JMU must be wary not to slip into complacency. O’Regan said “there will be” a natural let-down against Georgetown after JMU grinded out an emotional win over Virginia Tech and the former coach who recruited and mentored many of JMU’s key leaders.

“I’m going to fight that as hard as I can, but I do think that’s a natural thing,” O’Regan said. “Especially because we did play them earlier and beat them. We start one senior and four juniors, and we bring a senior off the bench … [they] should be a mature group. When it comes time for game time, you need to be pumped up and enjoy this journey.”

From what the players are saying, it sounds as if O’Regan’s message is sinking in. The WNIT championship will be played April 6 and with a pair of wins, JMU will play for the chance to hang a banner in the Convocation Center.

“You celebrate it tonight, and tomorrow morning we show up for practice, it’s done with,” Smalls said Thursday. “I think it’ll give us a nice confidence and momentum riding into our game with Georgetown.”

JMU showed it can rebound from disappointment in the last three games, but how it responds after one of the biggest wins of the season will be telling. The Dukes might not be competing for the coveted conference championship title, but they can still send their seniors out with rings if they stay locked in.

Contact James Faris at farisja@dukes.jmu.edu. For more basketball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.

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