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Kamiah Smalls looks to pass the ball. 

On Sunday, JMU women’s basketball played its first game in the second half of conference play, defeating Towson 81-39 in the Convocation Center. The win starts the Dukes off strong as they enter the latter part of their season, and it was their first game after a 70-48 loss to Drexel.

In recent seasons, the team has let the CAA tournament slip away, and players — especially the seniors — said they’re seeking to end that. Looking ahead, there are a variety of reasons for JMU’s success and why this season will be different from others.

First, there’s the freshman impact. Before freshman guard Kiki Jefferson is even mentioned, there’s another player who’s playing a major role for the team: freshman forward Rayne Tucker. Tucker started getting minutes when redshirt senior center Kayla Cooper Williams went down with an injury, and her role has already been noticed after just a few games.

Against Northeastern on Jan. 26, Tucker had nine rebounds in Cooper Williams’ absence with no points. On Sunday, Tucker had 10 points but was second on the team in rebounds with nine. Tucker’s game improves with every minute she gets and is becoming another crucial piece to the team.

Then, there’s Jefferson. The guard has been all over the court in 2019-20, and her play has progressed. Jefferson has received six CAA Rookie of the Week awards and is already nearing 200 points on the season, a number not many freshmen get to. Jefferson is also a driving force on and off the court, getting momentum moving in late games and getting players such as senior guard Kamiah Smalls amped up during the games.

With both Tucker and Jefferson developing well for JMU, its probability of winning the CAA tournament is growing. However, the Dukes’ defense plays just as important of a role.

On Sunday, JMU held Towson to only 39 points. The Tigers only put up nine points on the Dukes in the first quarter, while JMU had 21 points. The Dukes allowed the Tigers seven second-chance points compared to their 18, and Cooper Williams had a team-high six blocks. 

It’s not just the game against Towson where one can see the Dukes’ improvement. At home against William & Mary this season, the Tribe put up 70 points on the Dukes on Jan. 3, then Hofstra posted 50 points and Northeastern had 54. Throughout this season, JMU’s defense has tightened. It’s decreased its opponents’ point margin at home significantly. On the road, the Dukes have also decreased the point margin on defense — minus the Drexel game — and they held Delaware to only 39 points at home.

Defense is a major takeaway for JMU, but so is the team’s overall grit. Coming off a loss, JMU has been nearly unbeatable. Its first loss of the season came against Maryland on Nov. 13 in which the team lost, 70-68. But, instead of dwelling on the heartbreaking loss, the Dukes defeated the Big East Conference’s St. John’s 76-73 — a solid win.

JMU’s next loss came against Towson on Jan. 12 in which the Dukes’ loss came by a single point, 76-75. When the Dukes met Towson again on Sunday, the team was strong from start to finish and defeated the Tigers solidly at home. The grit and determination are going to bring the Dukes far. Instead of worrying about a CAA rival coming to Harrisonburg, the Dukes played it tough and showed why they’re almost unstoppable in the CAA.

The Dukes’ grit is also seen in the close games. JMU stood strong against out-of-conference teams like UCF, which it defeated 46-43, and St. John’s. The team also has grit in closer CAA matchups, like against William & Mary and at UNCW, where the Dukes won, 66-58. This shows that JMU doesn’t take any game lightly and that it’s ready for its final stretch of the season. 

There are many aspects that make JMU stand out in the CAA. The freshman class is dominating the court with both Jefferson and Tucker getting solid minutes and putting up the numbers to support it. The Dukes’ defense continues to improve, and point differentials for opponents are going down every game, while the blocks and rebounds are going up. 

JMU women’s basketball has what it takes to go far. The Dukes have the experience and the pieces, and it’s up to them to control their destiny.

Contact Savannah Reger at  regersj@dukes.jmu.edu. For more basketball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.