JMU sports have returned.
For the first time since March 12 — when JMU women’s tennis defeated USF, 5-2 — a team donning the purple and gold competed against another university.
It’s been over eight months since the coronavirus pandemic began ravaging the world, putting a halt to many aspects of normal life, including sports. Despite professional leagues returning, college athletic departments have been met with seemingly insurmountable challenges that continue to develop as winter nears.
But on Tuesday, JMU men’s basketball returned to action in what was a symbolic day in more ways than persevering through a pandemic. It was the beginning of the Mark Byington era. It was the chance for an almost completely new team to showcase what they’re made of.
And of course, it was the debut of the brand-new Atlantic Union Bank Center.
The Dukes opened it the way they wanted to: a 89-55 win over Limestone, a Division-II school from Gaffney, South Carolina. While the score was lopsided, it was joyful for the players and coaches to finally play their schedule.
“It’s one of hopefully many,” JMU head coach Mark Byington said. “We gotta keep climbing, keep getting better, but it’s good to get started this way.”
JMU forced 32 turnovers and shot 49% from the field and 31% from 3-point range in Byington’s premiere. Now fans have a glimpse into the style of the former Georgia Southern head coach, but will continue to see his game plan and coaching style as the Dukes begin facing Division-I opponents.
Tactics and coaching style aside, Byington exemplified the team’s depth early. Within seven minutes, nine players saw the court: two transfers, three freshmen and four returning players.
“I’m trying to figure our guys out. I haven’t seen them against other teams,” Byington said. “I wanna see how they react and how they play, you know, who can kinda process information quickly in a game. So, I was playing guys because I want to learn them.”
Byington added that limited practice has hindered the strength and conditioning of the players. As of now, he knows players can’t play extended minutes seen in the later parts of the year, but that should come with more games, practices and minimal stoppages during the season.
Six Dukes finished with double-digit scoring numbers, highlighted by freshman forward Justin Amadi’s team-high of 20 points. Senior guard Matt Lewis and junior guard Vado Morse chipped in 13 each, while sophomore forward Julien Wooden and senior forward Zach Jacobs had 11 and 10, respectively. Freshman Terrence Edwards also had an 11-point outing.
“I just had the mentality to come in and play hard, and just play solid and do what I need to do to help us win,” Amadi said.
Freshman Terell Strickland showcased the defensive capabilities of JMU by snatching 10 steals, breaking the Dukes’ single-game record in his first collegiate game. Byington said Strickland highlighted the potential of this freshman class.
JMU scored 58 of its points in the paint, while Limestone only scored 14. The Dukes also boasted 36 points from the bench, a crucial statistic as COVID-19 situations can force teams to utilize its depth.
While the Saints’ 32 turnovers didn’t bode well in their hopes to begin the season with a win, JMU made sure to not waste opportunities. The Dukes held a 35-12 advantage in points off turnovers.
“It’s good to see [Strickland] go out there, especially in his first game,” Lewis said. “He didn’t look nervous at all. And to go along with his 10 steals, he also had 8 assists. So, he’s out there making plays.”
Limestone had solid performances despite the 34-point loss. Freshman guard Isayah Owens had 20 points, shooting 8-of-13 from the field and 4-of-6 from downtown. Junior forward Stephen Edoka added 10 points, whlie freshman guard Jamel McGowan contributed nine.
JMU will host Norfolk State on Friday, with tipoff scheduled for noon. Limestone will face another CAA opponent in the College of Charleston on Saturday. That game is slated to begin at 1 p.m.
Contact Noah Ziegler at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.