After a 57-50 loss to No. 9 Hofstra dashed JMU’s conference title hopes, the Dukes look to rebound in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament.
JMU (25-5, 17-1 CAA) hosts North Carolina A&T — which went 20-11 and 16-0 in regular season Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference play — on Friday at 7 p.m. Like the Dukes, the Aggies were the top seed in their conference tournament but flamed out in the semifinals against Norfolk State, 60-43.
NC A&T went 10-4 on the road and finished third in the conference in scoring (64.6 points per game) and first in defense (49.4 points allowed per game). Despite placing second in shooting percentage (39.3 percent), the Aggies had the lowest free throw percentage in the conference (60.1 percent).
The first round game will be a strength-on-strength battle, as the Dukes are third in the CAA in scoring (66.7 points per game) and are sound defensively (second at 51 points allowed per game). Junior guards Kamiah Smalls and Lexie Barrier will likely be limited throughout the tournament after the two combined to play three minutes in the conference tournament. Additionally, freshman guard Maddie Green was held out of the loss to Hofstra after suffering an injury in the closing seconds of the team’s regular-season finale on March 10.
Smalls and Barrier — two of the team’s three leading scorers — can’t play on Friday, but JMU should still be a considerable favorite. In fact, JMU has the second-highest RPI of WNIT contenders. The Dukes finished the regular season with a perfect record (14-0) at home and are 36th in the nation in RPI — far above NC throughout the tournament rank of 202.
With a win over the Aggies, the Dukes would face either South Florida (18-15, 115th in RPI) or Stetson (16-15, 210th in RPI). From there, potential Round 3 opponents for JMU include VCU (23-9, 91st in RPI), NC Charlotte (18-12, 105th in RPI), Virginia Tech (20-11, 73rd in RPI) and Furman (19-13, 191st in RPI).
A deep WNIT run would ease the sting of an early conference tournament exit. JMU struggled to shoot without Smalls, as its last two shooting performances — 18-for-67, 26.8 percent against Hofstra and 17-for-66, 25.8 percent against Delaware — were its two lowest marks of the season.
"We've had some great moments in the WNIT,” head coach Sean O’Regan said at a press conference Tuesday. “I think we all knew where we wanted to go and the fact we don't get to do that is unfortunate but we have a home game."
Regardless of how it fares in the WNIT, JMU will bring back Smalls, Barrier, Green and a strong core in the 2019-20 season. While a CAA tournament championship is out of reach for one more season, the Dukes have an opportunity to avenge their loss to Hofstra and elevate the program on a national stage.
"Now it's step-up time,” O’Regan said. “No matter what level of player we are, whether it's [junior forward] Devon Merritt as a starter or [freshman guard] Eleanore Marciszewski coming off the bench, everyone needs to be ready to go."
Contact James Faris at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more basketball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @BreezeSports.