The shot of a lifetime.
That's how junior guard Kent Culuko described his last-second three-pointer that carried the Dukes to their first Colonial Athletic Association championship and a long-awaited NCAA tournament bid.
Head coach Lefty Driesell, urged by his players, opted for the three-point attempt in the last second instead of a two-point play that would have sent the game into overtime.
"I was setting up a play for two," Driesell said. "A couple of the guys said 'Let's go for three. It was an unbelievable shot, with the pressure on him and everything. Unbelievable."
Despite struggling throughout the game going 2-for-7 from the floor, Culuko was confident with his last shot. "I told [assistant coach] Kenny Brooks, 'If I get the ball, it's going in.'
After being victimized by CAA tournament upsets the last four years, the win was especially satisfying for Culuko.
"The last couple years, we came to the tournament and everyone went home disappointed," Culuko said. "But this year, I was happy we got over the hump and got the monkey off our back."
For senior forward Clayton Ritter, the four-year wait for a NCAA berth was worth it "We worked hard all year, and no one really expected us to be in this situation around tournament time. We knew we could do it. We had confidence in ourselves, and we just stepped it up in the second half and were able to come through.
"We weren't going to lose a ball game by not playing hard. I told the guys at half time, 'Whatever you do, make sure you leave everything on the floor.' The guys just stepped it up. They wanted this game a whole lot."
Culuko's clutch three-pointer was the culmination of an even more amazing comeback by the Dukes.
With 13:04 left in the game, JMU trailed by 19 points. Then something happened, something not many people in the Richmond Coliseum would have expected, given the Dukes play in the first half. The defense that was missing throughout the first half — when ODU sophomore center Odell Hodge and junior guard Mike Jones combined for 40 points — suddenly appeared.
The Dukes went on a 12-1 run in the next three minutes, and with 1:35 left in the game found themselves tied. Hodge's layup gave ODU the lead before Culuko's shot to claim the championship.
"I just thought it was a tremendous effort for our guys. It was a super, super, gutsy win for us. I'll never forget it." Driesell said. Of his 641 coaching wins from Davidson, Maryland and JMU, he said he ranks this one at the top.
"It's the greatest win I've ever been associated with as a player or a coach. I've been coaching 37 years — we've won the NIT, . . . won the ACC tournament, but I've never had a win like this."
In ending JMU's 11-year NCAA drought, Driesell relied on his entire rotation to pull off the win. Among the unsung heroes was sophomore guard Darren McLinton, who started the second half of the championship game. McLinton responded with 16 points in the half, a career-high 21 overall.
"That's not bad for a littie sophomore," Driesell said. "I thought he did a great job of taking the ball to the hole. I thought he did a super job."
Perhaps the most unexpected contribution was the play of sophomore center Kareem Robinson, who hit 6-of-9 shots for 14 points.
Robinson, who started several games early in the season but has struggled lately, came alive against UNC-Wilmington in the second-round game on both ends of the floor. He finished that game with a career-high 14 points and 12 rebounds.
Maybe Robinson was driven by comments made early in the tournament by American head coach Chris Knoche, who stated in a press conference during the tournament that he could drop-kick a basketball and make more free throws than Robinson, who's shooting just 28 percent from the line.
Driesell quieted critics with the Dukes' three-game tear through the CAA tournament. JMU came into the tournament losing five of their final 10 games, including loss to American, UNC-Wilmington, and Old Dominion the three teams they beat for the championship.
Despite the late-season setbacks, JMU showed no lack of confidence entering the CAAs, dismantling American in the first
round 86-67, with the final five minutes more like a Harlem Globetrotters game than a conference championship.
The Dukes hit on all cylinders, with Ritter netting 20 points and four other Dukes hitting double figures. JMU held the Eagles to 38 percent shooting from the field.
Against UNC-Wilmington the Dukes looked equally impressive. Leading by six at halftime, JMU broke the game open on the strength of Robinson's rebounding and a game-high 20 points from Culuko.
Overall, Driesell is especially proud with the team's play in the tournament considering the lack of veteran players and influx of new talent.
"I think these guys are a special team for me because we lost four players from last year. For us to come back and for the guys to win 20 games is unbelievable. They've worked hard and they get along with each other well. It's just a great year."