Around three and a half minutes before lobbing light-hearted insults as the visiting starting lineup is announced, the JMU pep band begins its enthusiastic rendition of the fan-favorite fight song, “Start Wearing Purple.” When this happens, it feels like the Dukes can’t lose.
JMU women’s basketball is undefeated (10-0) at home this season with a 23-game home winning streak that’s the third-longest in program history and the fifth-longest active streak in the nation, according to WHSV TV. The Dukes haven’t lost at the Convocation Center since Dec. 3, 2017, against then-No. 13 Florida State.
“I think it’s one of the best places to play women’s basketball in the country because of that crowd,” head coach Sean O’Regan said. “The band starts it all and the crowd is there. I think you’re feeling more relevant, feeling like all that hard work you’re doing is paying off. It gives you that pep in your step, you play with a little bit more pride.”
Students and younger JMU fans may not fully realize the history of the Convo — one of the nation’s most historic venues for women’s college basketball. Since its opening in 1982, the Dukes have won nine CAA tournament titles and made the NCAA tournament 12 times.
“Hearing the way the crowd reacts any time you have momentum going or you’re scoring … it’s electric,” junior guard Lexie Barrier said. “We take a lot of pride in playing at home.”
Whether the band, crowd or comforts of a familiar routine is the main factor, the numbers suggest JMU plays significantly better at home. The Dukes have outscored opponents by an astounding 20.7 points per game at home this season compared to 13.7 away from Harrisonburg. O’Regan’s team hasn’t been as dominant on the road — shown by a 6-4 record — and has fallen to Hampton, No. 7 Maryland, Wake Forest and CAA foe UNCW.
Defense requires extra effort and focus, and the numbers suggest that JMU is significantly better defensively playing in front of its home crowd. The Dukes allow 47.9 points per game at home and 54.9 on the road.
“We practice here all the time, we don’t have a separate facility like most teams do,” junior guard Kamiah Smalls said. “You’re used to seeing the purple on the walls, the band behind the backboard, you’re used to the surroundings … It keeps us comfortable.”
JMU’s offensive stats are nearly identical at home and on the road in terms of points per game, assists per game, shooting percentage and 3-point percentage. The Dukes turn the ball over about two more times per game on the road — a possible by-product of playing in hostile environments.
It’s difficult to go on the road and win against quality opponents in any sport, but the palpable energy JMU plays with on defense at home makes stealing a game from the Dukes in the Convo unrealistic for nearly every team in the conference. Northeastern played with confidence at the top of the CAA standings before it arrived it Harrisonburg for a Jan. 13 meeting with JMU. The Huskies went home with a 35-point loss, 84-49.
“This place is tough to play [in for opponents],” O’Regan said. “We had a couple of recruits [for the Elon game Jan. 27] who were like, ‘Man, this place is awesome, this atmosphere is awesome, that band is awesome.’”
There’s something tangibly different about the atmosphere when JMU women’s basketball takes the court. This season, JMU’s average home attendance is 2,170 — more than double the average mark of seven of the nine competing CAA teams. Delaware has the second-best attendance in the conference at 1,233.
“You don’t see a lot of support coming from women’s basketball teams,” redshirt junior center Kayla Cooper Williams said. “To have that many fans at our games, it really gives us a lot of momentum.”
Unlike other CAA schools, women’s basketball draws about as many fans as men’s basketball at JMU. Whether due to its recent success — the Dukes have won three of the past five conference titles — or the history surrounding the fourth-winningest program in NCAA women’s basketball history, JMU women’s basketball has an unmatched culture and fanbase in the CAA.
JMU survived a tough test from Towson (12-8, 6-3 CAA) on Sunday and overcame a nine-point fourth quarter deficit to win by 12 in overtime. With under three minutes to go, the Tigers were up six with the chance to extend their lead at the free-throw line. After both foul shots were missed, JMU forced 12 missed shots on 13 attempts and four turnovers to end the game on a 22-4 run.
The Dukes aren’t just looking to stay alive at home — they’re looking to dominate and get back to 2015-16 form. In that final year under former head coach Kenny Brooks, JMU accomplished two incredible feats: It went undefeated at home (14-0) and won the CAA tournament. Now under O’Regan, the Dukes don’t just have the chance to make history, they have the chance to repeat it.
Contact James Faris at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more basketball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.