Devon Merritt (copy)

Junior forward Devon Merritt led the Dukes in scoring against the Aggies.

JMU women’s basketball advanced to the second round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament with a 48-37 win over the North Carolina A&T Aggies. The Dukes were able to claim the win without the services of junior guards Kamiah Smalls and Lexie Barrier — who averaged 26.7 points combined this season. Junior forward Devon Merritt led the way for the Dukes with 15 points and nine rebounds.

Redshirt junior forward Kayla Cooper Williams ended up with 17 rebounds, which catapulted the Dukes to winning the rebounding battle, 49-41. JMU head coach Sean O’Regan put an emphasis on the rebounding battle being key for JMU, knowing that it wouldn’t have two of its top three scorers.

“Before the game, Coach O said that Wake Forest was the last time we got out rebounded until Hofstra,” Merritt said. “So, I think that was a sort of a big motivation. With me and Kayla in the game, as tall as everybody else out there on the floor, we should be able to go up and get as many rebounds as we can. We practiced that all year, been preaching about rebounding, it’s a staple for this program that we want to emphasize on.”

The defense overcame 29 percent shooting from the field by holding the Aggies to only 22 percent. The defensive rotations were stellar when JMU needed it most.

“We had a little bit more time to prepare with our two [stars] out,” senior guard Logan Reynolds said. “We’ve been preaching all year about defense. So, no matter the rotation, we all know our assignments in our roles.”

The Dukes were in a back and forth battle during the first half until the four-minute mark of the second quarter when they forced enough turnovers into transition points, leading to a 12-0 run to end the half. O’Regan felt that that run was a spark the team needed to finish the game in the win column.

“We finally got them in transition,” O’Regan said. “That’s what I didn’t want us to fall prey to … If they set their defense, they’re a good defensive team, I think everybody can agree with that.”

Redshirt junior guard Jackie Benitez not only impacted the offensive end, scoring in the double digits, she also made a difference in the passing lanes. She came up with six steals in the game. The Convocation Center crowd was one of the things that helped translate energy into her game.

“Our crowd is always a big part of us playing really hard,” Benitez said. “Playing back in the Convo was a big step in our win.”

JMU, now 26-5 on the season, will host the second round of the WNIT at the Convo on Sunday. The Dukes play the University of South Florida Bulls, with the tip-off at 6 p.m.

Contact Brandon Ellis For more sports coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.

Sports has been a passion for me all my life. I've always wanted to become a sports journalist ever since I heard the legendary Stuart Scott exclaim his great catchphrases like “Booyah!” or “Cooler than the other side of the pillow.”