After 29 games and 25 wins in 18 weeks, JMU women’s basketball is three wins away from its first conference championship under head coach Sean O’Regan.
JMU will put a 13-game winning streak to the test Thursday in Newark, Delaware, as the No. 1 seed in the CAA tournament. The Dukes are experienced and battle-tested in hostile environments and have won nine of their past 10 road games.
“I don’t believe in nervousness,” junior guard Kamiah Smalls said. “It’s either you’re ready or you’re not. I think we’re very prepared and more than ready. We just don’t want our excitement to overpower our will for the win.”
JMU has entered each of its past six seasons as the preseason favorite to win the CAA but lost to Elon in the tournament in both 2017 and 2018. After the Phoenix lost their four leading scorers over the offseason, the defending CAA champions appear to be a non-factor as the No. 8 seed at 9-20 (4-14 CAA). The Dukes now have a chance to reclaim the title, which would be their fourth in six seasons.
“I don’t think it’s a surprise to anybody that we’re here,” O’Regan said. “My expectations are pretty high … I’ve always believed in this team, so being in first place and in the driver’s seat is a place I really hoped we’d be at this point.”
The Dukes came into the season with the pressure of high expectations and a challenging non-conference schedule. After a 3-0 start to the season, JMU went 3-3 in its next six games before winning 19 of 20 to close the regular season. As expected, it took time for players to adjust to new roles and the team to feel comfortable playing with each other.
“Not having a preseason with them was a little hard for me,” redshirt junior guard Jackie Benitez said. “They got a little more time to play with each other. At this point in the season, we’re just all really clicking, and it’s a great time to start clicking.”
JMU wrapped up the regular season with a 25-4 (17-1 CAA) record and its first undefeated season at home since 2015-16. The Dukes have beaten every conference foe at least once, with their one loss coming to UNCW 66-63 on Jan. 18. JMU is 25th in the nation in RPI — the next-highest CAA team is Drexel at 63rd.
“The only way we don’t come out on top is if we’re not playing somewhere close to our best,” O’Regan said. “It’s not the result we’re going to be focused on, it’s the process of getting better and improving. If we’re doing that, I don’t think there’s anybody that would beat us.”
O’Regan said in a postgame interview on Jan. 13 that while Smalls has been a consistent scorer throughout the season — she ranks fifth in the CAA with 16.6 points per game — junior guard Lexie Barrier is the offense’s X-factor who may determine JMU’s ceiling.
“[Barrier scoring] takes the pressure off of everything else,” O’Regan said. “If she’s rollin’, I don’t know what you do with us. If we’re making 13 threes, you shouldn’t zone us, you need to play us man-to-man. Now who’s guarding Kamiah? Who’s guarding Lexie?”
In addition to its strong offense, JMU thrives by attacking the glass and playing strong defense in the team’s style of play. The team ranks second in the conference in defense (50.8 points allowed per game) and first in rebounding margin (+10.3). As Smalls put it, the Dukes are working on becoming “great at what you’re good at.”
“We always can hang our hat on defense and rebounding,” O’Regan said. “We’re gonna score sometimes, sometimes we’re not. I think we’re versatile, we have a lot of different weapons, but our mentality can’t weaken at all.”
O’Regan said he doesn’t foresee making any changes to his team’s style of play, pace or rotation in the postseason, believing his system was “good enough to win the conference tournament.” Foul trouble and fatigue may be factors, in which case he plans to use the team’s depth to its advantage. He said if the team is healthy and out of foul trouble, the rotation “might stay tight.”
Unless JMU leads by 20 or more toward the end of the game, O’Regan isn’t planning on giving his starters extended rest. Lower-seeded teams are fighting for their postseason lives and already have a game under their belt while the Dukes will be rested, but potentially rusty.
“Look, you’re going to be tired regardless, so whether you play 38 minutes or you play 34 minutes, to me, you’re going to be tired,” O’Regan said. “Get your body ready to play 120 minutes. Kamiah Smalls, she should be ready to play 120 minutes … That’s the mentality.”
JMU will lean on its stars to set the tone, play heavy minutes and take the Dukes back to the conference championship. Veteran leadership from Smalls, Barrier, redshirt junior center Kayla Cooper Williams and senior guard Logan Reynolds has kept JMU near the top of the conference all season and will be just as valuable in the CAA tournament.
“We better stay hungry,” O’Regan said. “What I’m starting to learn about the maturity of Kamiah and Kayla and Logan and Lexie is that they’ll take care of that for me. Those four kids have been through everything. They know what it takes. They know that, come Wednesday, we’ve got to get down to business and turn the page.”
Contact James Faris at email@example.com. For more basketball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.