It wasn’t the “Mona Lisa” of basketball games, as new JMU head coach Mark Byington put it in his post-game Zoom call.
When JMU jumped to a 16-point lead in the first half against Radford, the team was flying with an energy that men’s basketball was missing for years. The fans, albeit limited, were enjoying the Dukes showing a glimpse of what the team can do once it’s firing on all cylinders.
But Radford slowly crept its way back. A couple of runs cut the deficit to nine heading into halftime, and over five minutes into the second half, the Highlanders were down 39-36.
In previous years, the Dukes (2-1) might’ve folded under pressure and ultimately conceded the game. Tonight, Byington’s team remained calm and withstood any comeback efforts, guiding its way to a 67-59 win over its in-state foe.
“We showed so much togetherness and toughness,” Byington said. “Guys showed some fire and competitiveness and, you know, I’ve been trying to pull it out of them and they definitely played that way today.”
The game was originally scheduled to begin at 7 p.m., but contact tracing of COVID-19 cases meant an official needed to be replaced, pushing the contest to 8:30 p.m. This gave the Highlanders (0-3) — who played last night against Norfolk State — more time to rest, but Radford still struggled out the gate.
JMU jumped out to a 28-12 lead behind a blistering 5-of-7 start from downtown. However, 13 points from the bench and 11 offensive rebounds helped the Highlanders inch their way into the deficit, eventually making it a 34-25 game despite shooting 37% from the floor in the first half.
Radford came out in the second stanza on an 11-5 run, putting it down three with 14:21 left in the game. From there, the teams traded punches as the Dukes managed to keep the visitors at an arm’s length.
Up until eight minutes left in the game, senior guard Matt Lewis hadn’t established a firm hold on the game. Then, the Woodbridge, Virginia, native burst for six consecutive points that pushed the Dukes’ lead back to 11. He finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds, his first double-double of the season.
“I just was aggressive, you know, and got some stops on defense and tried to get some rebounds,” Lewis said. “When the lane opened up for me, I got a few layups and a few shots. But, yeah I was thinking mentally, like, I had to assert myself and try to push the lead.”
The Highlanders once again found themselves within six, but two 3-pointers from junior guard Vado Morse pushed his point total to a career-high 26 and gave JMU a 63-51 lead, which ultimately was too much for Radford to overcome.
“After the Norfolk State game, [Byington] told us they pretty much brought it to us,” Morse said. “They showed a lot of strength. He said, ‘We gotta flip that around so that we’re showing the strength at the end of the game … We believe in Coach B and his play calls and his staff, and he believes in us.”
JMU’s win signaled the growth under Byington, despite him having limited time with his team. For years, the Dukes squandered double-digit leads of games that would kickstart momentum.
Tonight, a relatively young team still building chemistry closed out a vital win — an important one as JMU turns its attention to Old Dominion. The Dukes will host the Monarchs on Dec. 7 in Harrisonburg, while Radford will search for its first win as it hosts Mars Hill on Wednesday.
Contact Noah Ziegler at email@example.com. For more coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.