HARRISONBURG – Louis Rowe had little choice but to take big gamble after big gamble Thursday night.
The James Madison basketball coach knew his team’s margin for error is thin, so he found a lineup that worked and stuck with it. Through foul trouble, furious rallies from William & Mary and fatigue, Rowe stuck with the same seven players throughout Thursday’s game, and it worked out in his favor.
The Dukes had just enough left in the tank to outlast William & Mary 95-92 in overtime at the Convocation Center, earning them a second Colonial Athletic Association victory in their last nine tries.
“Today, we were all for each other,” junior Ramone Snowden said. “We knew we could come out with a win, we just needed to play defense and get the stops we needed. The offense was there, we were playing well together, we just needed to get a few stops at the end to get the win.”
JMU (8-20, 6-9 CAA) took advantage of some hot shooting in the first half to quickly build a double-digit lead, which it held for most of the opening period. The lead hovered around 14 for the first part of the second half as well before the foul trouble started to test Rowe’s nerves.
By the midway point of the half, JMU had three players with four fouls and a fourth with three, but Rowe stuck with his gut and didn’t turn to the rest of his bench in the game. William & Mary (14-12, 8-7 CAA) worked its way into the bonus early in the second half and used free throws and some timely 3-pointers to creep back into the game, cutting the lead to five points or fewer on numerous occasions.
Rowe said he thought about bringing in sophomore Vince Holmes or senior Shakir Brown in the second half, but put faith in his team to finish the job without those two.
“I thought we were OK,” Rowe said. “Some guys played some heavy minutes, but I thought we were going to get home. But those guys were over there.”
The only two players keeping the Tribe in the game in the first half were Connor Burchfield and Jack Whitman, who combined to score 22 points on 7-of-8 shooting. Whitman found his way into foul trouble in the second half and became largely ineffective in the post and Burchfield missed three of his four shots after sinking all three of his 3-pointers in the opening 20 minutes.
Daniel Dixon and Omar Prewitt, the Tribe’s leading scorers, carried a large load of the offense in the second half and overtime. The pair scored 36 of William & Mary’s 54 points in the final 25 minutes after combining for only 10 points in the first half.
William & Mary coach Tony Shaver said his team is at its best when they are more balanced scoring, and thought the Tribe were too one-dimensional in the latter stages of the game.
“The truth is [Dixon and Prewitt] weren’t very good defensively tonight,” Shaver said. “When one takes 21 shots and the other takes 17, we’re not going to be a great team. We relied on them entirely too much tonight to be successful.”
One thing aiding Rowe’s rotation was the return of Joey McLean to the starting lineup after the junior point guard missed Saturday’s 58-57 loss to Delaware with pneumonia. The first-year coach said McLean was particularly useful in helping Jackson Kent return to his more natural position off the ball.
McLean did not practice for most of the week as he dealt with the effects of his illness, but he had enough energy Thursday to score 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting in 36 minutes of action. McLean also added four assists while taking care of the ball well for most of the game.
“We were joking about how he doesn’t practice for two days and then he comes out on the court and he doesn’t look like it,” said Snowden, who scored 18 points and secured eight boards in the win. “He’s scoring the ball easily out there and bringing a lot to the game. We missed his scoring, we missed his being the floor general, being the point guard out there.”
McLean and Snowden both logged 36 or more minutes in the victory, but neither one of them could touch the workload Kent and senior Ivan Lukic put in. Kent scored 16 points while playing all 45 minutes and Lukic scored a career-best 19 points and grabbed six rebounds in 43 minutes.
“Never happier in my life,” Lukic said. “We got the win right now, and I’m looking forward to practice tomorrow. … As long as we’re winning and I can have this winning sensation in me after the game, I’m super happy with that.”
The challenge for Rowe now is to find ways to get the four players he pushed beyond 35 minutes some rest in the 45 hours between the end of the victory and tip off against Towson on the road Saturday at 7 p.m. The coach said he won’t spend too much time on offense because of the rhythm he saw his team in, but stressed the importance of defense against the Tigers, who scored 85 points in Thursday’s win over Elon.
“You’re going there to compete in a ball game,” Rowe said. “We’ll do some stuff defensively, so we’ll get up and down a bit, but I do have to [find a way to get those guys some rest]. Another thing I have to do is work with some guys to maybe have them ready to play some minutes and have them mentally on track with what we’re doing because we do need everybody. Going into the [CAA] Tournament, we can’t have these guys logging these kinds of minutes.”