The last two weeks have been a whirlwind for Jackie Benitez and JMU women’s basketball. The Dukes entered their contest against the University of South Florida in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament on Sunday coming off their two lowest outside-shooting marks of the season and two of their three lowest-scoring outings.
Benitez then torched the nets in the team’s 71-54 victory over USF. Her 26 points and seven 3-point makes were her most in a JMU uniform as she went 9-for-18 from the floor.
“I played without thinking today,” Benitez said. “After my third shot, I was like, ‘Keep shooting.’ [Junior guard Kamiah Smalls] always tells me, ‘Shoot it like you’re in practice.’”
But before the 3-pointers started splashing in the Convocation Center, there was a dry spell. After taking the regular season title with a 25-4 (17-1 CAA) record, the Dukes were stunned by No. 9 Hofstra in the CAA quarterfinals on March 14. The team shot 2-for-19 on 3-pointers — its worst mark since its 0-for-19 performance against William & Mary on Feb. 26, 2017. Its 2-for-18 mark in the first round of the WNIT against North Carolina A&T wasn’t much better.
In those two games, Smalls was a non-factor, limited by a hand injury she suffered in the regular season finale. The Philadelphia native saw just two minutes in the CAA tournament and didn’t play against the Aggies. Benitez carried the burden of being the team’s primary offensive option but struggled, 4-for-26 from 3-point land with nine made shots on 42 attempts.
Against the Bulls, Benitez rediscovered her rhythm and made as many shots in the second half as she did in either of the two previous games. Though it was the former Siena star who had the statistical night to remember, Smalls’ ability to draw the focus of the defense was arguably just as valuable as the 17 points she dropped.
“I give her a lot of the credit,” head coach Sean O’Regan said of Smalls. “I joke about the ‘leader swag,’ but it’s got a lot to do with it. Then, she can score … I thought Smalls’ energy was awesome, it gives people confidence.”
Known as a confident but streaky shooter, Benitez didn’t start the game hot from deep, missing her first four 3-point attempts. She closed the half with three-straight makes from behind the arc and put USF away with three more 3-pointers to open the fourth quarter.
O’Regan said JMU wants to run its offense with a loose and up-tempo style, but struggled doing that against the Pride without Smalls, freshman guard Madison Green and junior guard Lexie Barrier. Now that Smalls and Green are back, the offense is back to being the unit that lit up the scoreboard in the regular season.
“I thought we tried to play too slow against Hofstra in the tournament,” O’Regan said. “My game plan was [to] slow it down, let’s [go] one possession at a time, and that’s not how we play.”
Up next for JMU is a 22-11 Virginia Tech team led by head coach Kenny Brooks, who coached the Dukes from 2003-16 and mentored O’Regan on his staff for nine seasons. The Dukes will try to duplicate their performance against USF and play with pace, but O’Regan is sure Brooks will be prepared to steal a game on the road and advance to the next round.
“I always give him the edge,” O’Regan said about facing Brooks for the first time. “I give him all the credit in the world. He taught me a lot about leadership, what works, what doesn’t work, how to make adjustments … I have the utmost respect for what he’s done for me and for this institution, this program.”
The Dukes will benefit from junior forward Devon Merritt’s presence against Virginia Tech. Merritt left Sunday’s win clutching her right arm but said the injury looks worse than it is and she’d be ready to play against the Hokies.
“I'll be good by tomorrow,” Merritt said on Sunday. “I’ll be fine, I look worse than I am.”
The injury news isn’t all positive for the Dukes, as O’Regan confirmed Sunday night that Barrier won’t return this season after she left the loss to Hofstra in the opening minute with a hand injury. He said it’s a “much more severe” injury than what Smalls battled, but confirmed it wasn’t career-threatening.
JMU puts its 29-game home winning streak to the test against Virginia Tech on Thursday at 7 p.m. with a spot in the WNIT quarterfinals on the line. If the rain of 3-pointers continues for the next few weeks, the Dukes have a good chance of reigning as WNIT champions.
Contact James Faris at email@example.com. For more basketball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.