HARRISONBURG — When the two teams met last season in Harrisonburg, James Madison made sure Tennessee was going to have to beat it shooting the basketball.
Coming off the news that Kayla Cooper-Williams would miss the season with a torn ACL, the Dukes made it a point to shut down Tennessee’s Mercedes Russell in the post, limiting the 6-foot-6 center to 4-of-8 shooting. It was the Lady Volunteers’ shooting that ended up hurting the Dukes in an 81-69 defeat to open the Sean O’Regan era, but it was a result the now second-year JMU coach could live with.
This season, the Dukes are bigger with the return of Cooper-Williams and the addition of Virginia Tech transfer Kelly Koshuta, who had to sit out last season. But the Volunteers have also gotten taller, boasting just three players shorter than 6 feet on this year’s roster and four players who are taller than either Cooper-Williams or Koshuta at 6-foot-2.
The challenge of shutting down the paint is still very important as the two teams meet tonight at 7 p.m. in Knoxville, Tenn.
“It’s about staying aggressive on defense,” Cooper-Williams said. “If we go out and we play our defense the way we practice it every day, we’ll be fine.”
JMU (1-1) had some struggles on the interior Friday against a Rutgers team that was equally big and tall, allowing 16 second-chance points on 18 offensive rebounds. O’Regan chalked that up to his team lacking the aggressive mindset Cooper-Williams referred to.
But that aggressiveness needs to extend to the offensive end of the floor as well within O’Regan’s system. Although the Dukes play at a higher pace, the inside-scoring presence helps open up the game for JMU’s talented guards, like Kamiah Smalls, to attack the basket and make plays.
“It opens up the floor much more because it will come down to teams doubling down on them and then you have guards open,” Smalls said. “Or we may cut down off them and there’s a duck-down pass that’s open. So we have a lot more options on the floor.”
Cooper-Williams said if JMU is going to have success at establishing the post early against the No. 13 Lady Vols (1-0), it must start with the Dukes’ movement on offense. JMU has 20 assists on 46 baskets through two games – a sign the team is not moving the ball well in certain portions of the game. Cooper-Williams said when JMU is sharing the ball and forcing the defense to constantly be on the move, it allows her to have a better chance at receiving the ball in a good position in the paint.
“Just by staying poised with the ball and making sure we’re moving the ball,” the sophomore said. “When we’re moving the ball, we’re a fantastic team. So as long as we stay poised and calm and make good decisions, we’ll be fine.”
Whereas Cooper-Williams is still working her way back to fully trusting her knee, Koshuta is trying to find some consistency in her first appearances for the Dukes. The redshirt sophomore scored 20 points in Sunday’s win over an undersized Wagner team, but was just 2-of-5 for four points against Rutgers in the season opener.
O’Regan said he thought the stats against the Scarlet Knights had more to do with Koshuta’s defensive lapses than her offensive abilities. He admitted after Sunday’s win that he needed to put more trust in her on defense because Koshuta is capable of playing good defense, but that has no effect on her natural gift for scoring.
“My standards for her are high, I’ve seen her for five years,” O’Regan said. “She shouldn’t be 7-for-9 right now, she should be 9-for-9 or more and without those turnovers. Her mistakes are easy ones to fix. … She’s got a really high basketball IQ, so she does a lot of things for us. If Kelly is on the floor, she’s going to score, I don’t care if it’s 6-foot-8, 6-foot-6, 6-foot-4, she has a knack for that.”
Koshuta said she feels her work in practice over the last year has helped her be able to score no matter how big or tall the player guarding her may be. She said she has a large arsenal of post moves she can use to find ways to score against bigger bodies in the post.
“Working in practice, we’re always learning new moves and developing new moves, whether it’s against undersized post players or bigger post players,” Koshuta said. “Tennessee will obviously be a challenge, but I think our coaches have taught us well in the post.”