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What we learned last night: JMU has a team that can make some noise in March

kihei clark
Photo: UVA Athletics

Mark Byington, now the JMU basketball coach, was at UVA in the early 2000s working on his master’s degree, and spent some time on the staff of former Virginia coach Pete Gillen.

This is pre-JPJ, which, yes, kids, there was a time before JPJ.

Byington learned a lot in his time on Grounds about basketball and life that would lead him to where he is now.

Last night, he learned something new: that he has a team that might be able to do something special in March.

“I was proud of our guys. I thought we competed the right way. I thought we handled a very difficult environment, and, you know, we went right there with, you know, I think, one of the best teams in the country,” Byington said after his team gave third-ranked Virginia everything it could handle, and almost more, in a 55-50 loss on Tuesday night.

The Dukes were already the darlings of the analytics set before last night. KenPom.com has JMU the favorite to win the Sun Belt Conference this year, and the team’s #74 ranking, as of this writing, would project to the team getting a 12 or 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

And 12s and 13s, as the 4s and 5s on the other side of the bracket line are well aware, have been known to win a game or two come March Madness.

Virginia, and yes, it’s early, but being ranked third in the polls projects to being a 1 seed.

JMU was able to hang with the ‘Hoos blow for blow last night.

“I want to credit Mark and his ballclub because they’re, they’re very good,” UVA coach Tony Bennett said. “They’ve added, I think they’ve improved from last year, as I think we have, and they play hard. And the reason why I think there’s they’re good is because they can play a couple different styles.”

To that point: the Dukes entered last night’s game averaging 93.3 points on 73.1 possessions per game – basically, up-tempo, up and down the court, score early and often.

Last night was 180 degrees from that type of game – a 60-possession game that was more rock fight than the track meet that JMU prefers.

It certainly helped JMU’s cause that Virginia had to go for the final 36 minutes without star guard Reece Beekman, a projected first-round NBA pick, who went down with a hamstring injury after converting a fast-break bucket.

But the Dukes were hobbling a bit themselves, with several players recovering from a bout with the flu picked up on a November road trip.

After getting down 11 late in the first half, JMU closed to seven at the half, and kept chipping away, chipping away, before tying the game at 42 on a three-pointer by Takal Molson at the 7:51 mark.

Virginia would get the lead back out to six on three different occasions, the last time on an Isaac McKneely free throw with 2:02 to go.

Molson, who had a game-high 20 points, got the margin down to four with a layup at the 1:51 mark and then, after a Ben Vander Plas miss, another Molson layup got it to two with one minute left.

UVA freshman Ryan Dunn converted a nifty, no, manly, driving layup with 36 seconds left to make it a four-point game.

A missed three by Vado Morse and a turnover by Molson sent Clark back to the line, where he made one of two to extend the lead to five, and JMU would get no closer.

JMU was able to keep it close despite shooting just 27.3 percent from the field (15-of-55), in large part because the undersized Dukes were able to win the rebounding battle, 41-33, with 13 of those offensive rebounds.

“The frustrating thing is, I think we probably left some plays out there, maybe some shots around the rim and some actions there that were just close, and you’ve got, to beat a team like Virginia in this building, you know, you can’t leave those opportunities out there,” Byington said.

The misses at the rim were the result of Virginia doing what Virginia does, defending at an elite level.

The Cavaliers blocked 10 JMU shots, and forced misses on 13 of the Dukes’ 19 attempts at layups on the night.

“We knew how good they were, and they showed it in spots tonight,” said UVA power forward Jayden Gardner, who had 14 points, eight rebounds and two blocked shots in the win. “They got us lifted, and they beat us on some straight-line drives, but I think you saw our resiliency tonight on the defense in getting crucial stops.”

It took Virginia playing its customary elite defense to get #3 past this one, with #1 Houston next on the schedule.

Count Bennett among the impressed with what we all saw from JMU last night.

“They put pressure on you and transition and get down on the floor fast,” Bennett said. “They can shoot the three. They get on the offensive glass. They drive hard. Plus, there’s a lot of moving parts. So as I said, Mark does a really good job. I’m really impressed with him as a coach. And you know, hope they have a real strong year, because they look like to have the makings to have a heck of a team.”

Byington, who has a win over Bennett on his resume, last year in Harrisonburg, cited that experience as giving his team confidence heading into last night’s game.

“I thought we would come in, I thought we would, I thought we’d compete, and some of the things we did, I thought we did at a high level, but we just didn’t do quite enough, and, you know, that’s kind of the frustrating part,” Byington said. “But we do definitely have something to build on, you know, with our team, going against a team like that, we will be better for it. And hopefully, we get an opportunity, at some point down the road, to be able to play another team with the caliber of Virginia and try to take advantage of the opportunity.

“But this type of game, these type of teams, and everything else, we’ll be a better team because of this game in those situations, and, you know, I love it,” Byington said. “You know, it’s drudgery going against them, but I always feel like I’m a better coach after going against Tony Bennett, just because of what I’ve gotta learn, and I think our team’s the same way, I think, after going against him. I think we learn a lot, and I think we’ll be a better team for it.”

Chris Graham

In addition to being the editor of Augusta Free Press, I've written seven books, including Poverty of Imagination and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, both published in 2019, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For my commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to my YouTube page, youtube.com/chrisgrahamAFP. Want to reach me? Try [email protected].