Jackie Benitez

JMU women's basketball has claimed at least a share of the CAA regular season title with its win over Towson.

Focus on the process, not the results.

That’s been JMU women’s basketball head coach Sean O’Regan’s mantra and mindset since early November. Control what you can control, focus on getting better each day and the results will come. Four months later, the habits he ingrained in the offseason have carried the team to the doorstep of its first title in three seasons.

“The last couple games, we’ve just been out here makin’ it look kinda easy,” junior guard Kamiah Smalls said. “To be out here and beat multiple opponents in the CAA by more than 20 points is really crazy. I wouldn’t have thought that we would’ve been beating teams by 20, but I thought we would be winning some games.”

JMU is 23-4 (15-1 CAA) and clinched at least a share of the regular season conference title Sunday with a 73-56 victory against Towson. With a win over Drexel (21-6, 13-3 CAA), they’ll clinch the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. Regardless of who it plays, the team is confident it can control the game.

“Our athleticism and our tempo is what kinda throws [opponents] off,” Smalls said. “We’re going to go out there and we’re gonna play James Madison basketball. We’re going to make you be uncomfortable rather than being uncomfortable with you.”

Before JMU started making other teams uncomfortable, it first had to get uncomfortable in a different kind of way. O’Regan said the team practices hard every Saturday, as opposed to his first year, where the Saturday practices were light. It now practices for its normal hour-and-40-minutes and stays in its regular routine. O’Regan added, “This is what you’ve gotta do to get it done.”

“We had a couple games this season where Coach O would just wake us up in the morning just to wake us up,” Smalls said. “I woke up and I was like ‘Oh, Kamiah, you’ve gotta get yourself together. We’ve got a game to win.’”

One of those games was at noon, Feb. 15, against the College of Charleston. Smalls said roommate and teammate Lexie Barrier shares her pain of waking up in the morning around 7 a.m. to make it to campus by 7:40. The two may have a great bond, but don’t talk much in the mornings.

“It’s just adapting to the things of the tournament knowing that you have to push through your body, your ache, your pain for those three days if you want to come out on top,” Smalls said. “You have to be the tougher team no matter what.”

Despite its outstanding record, the Dukes have battled through adversity this season, including the dismissal of former starter Kelly Koshuta after two games. Junior forward Devon Merritt seamlessly filled the void and is third on the team in field goal percentage and second in rebounds.

Redshirt junior guard Jackie Benitez also had to adjust to a new role — though hers was a smaller one. She averaged 16.7 points per game with Siena in 2016-17 before transferring to JMU, where she now comes off the bench. This season, Benitez is third on the team in points per game (10.9) despite playing 23.5 minutes per game. She said more minutes in the postseason “wouldn’t hurt at all” before later adding that the biggest thing she’s learned this year has been patience.

“I [was] coming off an [preseason] injury, I had to basically learn how to not get frustrated,” Benitez said. “Every player’s going to get frustrated when things aren’t going their way. I’ve really had to learn if my shot’s not working, [my] defense is still here.”

Benitez has adjusted her game to complement her teammates, which is no given for a transfer of her caliber. The team’s emphasis on improving and sacrificing for the good of the team has gotten it this far and may carry it all the way to its fourth CAA title in six seasons. Countless hours of work and preparation make the Dukes a confident bunch, and many feel there’s no team in the conference that can compete when JMU is at its best.

“Very honestly, I feel like we beat ourselves,” O’Regan said of JMU’s 66-63 road loss to UNCW. “I think they played well enough to beat us, but it’s the highest point total we’ve given up in-conference, we were up nine going into the fourth quarter and we stopped defending — they scored 24 points. They made the tougher plays. I’ve watched that fourth quarter and learned from that fourth quarter quite often.”

O’Regan acknowledged it may sound crazy, but said seven CAA teams could realistically win the title, including Northeastern (17-10, 7-9 CAA) and William & Mary (13-14, 6-10 CAA). He sees the top four teams as Towson, Drexel, JMU and UNCW and thinks Delaware could potentially benefit from playing on its home floor.

“For me, there’s no tomorrow, there’s no rest,” O’Regan said. “The mindset will never be how we’re going to pace for the next game. Let’s win 40 minutes, then we’ll deal with whatever we’ve got to deal with next.”

When the conference tournament rolls around, the Dukes won’t “play down” to opponents, even if they play the worst team in the conference. JMU is focused on the process of preparation, so the opponent or its record means nothing heading into the game. O’Regan knows what this team can be, which is why anything less than a CAA title and an NCAA tournament appearance would, in his eyes, be a disappointment.

Contact James Faris at farisja@dukes.jmu.edu. For more basketball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.

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