JMU Women’s Basketball Ready For Sun Belt Tournament Run

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Daniel Merriman

JMU women’s basketball is the defending Sun Belt Conference champion. However, this season the Dukes (21-10, 13-5 SBC) have played without several key pieces from their 2023 campaign and enter the SBC Tournament as the No. 3 seed.

What will it take for the current queens of the Sun Belt to defend their throne? Earlier this month, I spoke with associate head coach Neil Harrow to learn about the Dukes’ resilience in their trek back to March Madness. 

Editor’s note: JMU women’s basketball begins its conference tournament run on Friday at 6 p.m. ET. The opponent is to be determined.

Special 2023 campaign

First, let’s investigate the state of the Dukes coming off their league championship run.

The Dukes won the conference’s 2023 regular season title, the conference tournament championship, the SBC Player of the Year Award, and the 6th Woman of the Year honor. This season culminated with a blowout win over Texas State in the SBC Championship game. Peyton McDaniel scored a season-high 30 points on lights-out shooting from three-point range (7-7). 

“The Sun Belt has been good,” Harrow told JMU Sports News. “It’s improving. This is the best the Sun Belt has ever been top to bottom. It is a tough league that doesn’t get the respect it deserves.” 

Harrow has nine years of SBC experience under his belt between JMU and Troy. He won five championships (if you count regular season and tournament championships as separate titles) at Troy and has two at JMU. Head coach Sean O’Regan and Harrow have found tremendous regular season and conference tournament success while being in the league.

JMU automatically qualified for the NCAA tournament and faced Ohio State, a No. 3 seed. The 14th-seeded Dukes gave the Buckeyes a solid fight in the first half but eventually fell to OSU by 14 due to a suffocating press.

Following this game, JMU lost their star player, Kiki Jefferson ,to the transfer portal. She is finishing her final year at Louisville now, and she’s thriving. Jefferson averages 13.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game for a ranked ACC team.

Starting point guard Caroline Germond graduated and starting forward Kobe King-Hawea left the program, too. This left a hole in the Dukes’ offense because the majority of their scheme was based around the shot creation and playmaking of these three players. This led to O’Regan and his staff making several major changes to their offensive system for the 2024 season. 

2024 roster adversity

Entering the 2024 season, JMU had two preseason all-conference players returning. Peyton McDaniel and Kseniia Kozlova were expected to drive the Dukes’ success heading into the second year of their SBC tenure. James Madison also added a transfer from the same team that beat them in the NCAA tournament, Ohio State. The addition of Hevynne Bristow, a 6’1” slasher, has been an integral part to the team’s overall continuity on the court.

O’Regan tried to recruit Bristow out of high school but she inevitably chose Providence. She then transferred to OSU after her freshman year and spent 3 years in Columbus.

Since she decided to transfer to JMU for her last year, Bristow was subject to the two-time transfer restrictions enforced by the NCAA. JMU applied for a waiver to allow her to compete in their 2024 campaign and that request was promptly denied. Later in the season, a lawsuit overruled the NCAA’s decision to limit transferring to multiple universities and forced the association to drop the two-time transfer rule.

Consequently, Bristow was granted the ability to play halfway through the Dukes’ season. She suffered a minor injury in the weeks leading up to the conference tournament but has played with the team in their last two contests.

“She’s been great,” Harrow said. “I’ve really enjoyed coaching Hevynne.”

This tumultuous time of ineligibility and injury wasn’t the only trial JMU’s players faced.

Another prime example of hardship was Peyton McDaniel’s struggle and subsequent resurgence throughout the year. She started the season very cold from long range. The sharpshooter connected a mere 24.2% from three during JMU’s out-of-conference schedule.

However, her slump was short-lived because she is now shooting a scorching 46.4% from beyond the arch against Sun Belt competition, the best mark of any player in the conference. The bump in production against conference teams has helped the Dukes to a 13-5 record in SBC play.

JMU’s conference play has been an overall success with several costly blips in effort and efficiency along the way. This team is extremely successful at rebounding and defense when locked in. That success on the glass has come because the Dukes have some of the best size in the Sun Belt. Kozlova and Anna Goodman headline this effort, as the 6’4” centers have been dominant interior presences all year.

Kozlova has been hurt to finish the regular season, a significant loss. Her status for the conference tournament is unclear.

With Kozlova hurt, Goodman has upped her production. She is averaging 11.5 PPG and 7.8 boards a night since being inserted into the starting lineup.

She has been a solid backup all season but has stepped up when her number has been called. Her confidence appears to be at an all-time high as the conference tournament gets set to begin.

Like Goodman, other JMU role players have been critical to their success all year. Key contributors like Chloe Sterling, Olivia Mullins, and Steph Ouderkirk have been excellent playmakers and facilitators in nearly every contest. Ashanti Barnes shows her toughness on the glass (6.3 rebounds per game) nightly. Jamia Hazell (9.9 points per game) can get the Dukes a tough bucket whenever needed. And to top it all off Carole Miller has brought invaluable poise and experience to this group.

JMU has shown the signs of a champion all year through gritty victories. They are the only team to beat Marshall University (23-6, 16-1 SBC) in conference play. They accomplished this feat at Marshall’s home gym too. The Dukes beat a quality VCU team early in the season and an ACC opponent, Wake Forest. James Madison took down the 4th-seeded Old Dominion Monarchs to finish their regular season schedule as well. They’ve won 4 of their last 5 games with the last 4 contests being held on the road.

Conference tournament expectations

“The motivation is at a good point right now and I think it will only continue to grow as we see the finish line ahead of us where we can be in a position to win a championship hopefully,” Harrow told JMU Sports News last month.

The Dukes have plenty of tricks in their bag to tackle all types of playing styles. Harrow has implemented a new aggressive 3-2 zone that has caused fits to the opposition’s offenses. They have also discovered ways to defeat a high-tempo style of play against a team like Marshall, which presses for a majority of their contests. JMU’s kryptonite in their NCAA tournament game was full-court defensive pressure, but the Dukes seem a bit more comfortable against the press this season.

“The zone that we play, nobody does it quite like we do … It’s a high-energy, high-output zone that is really really effective,” Harrow said. “It’s unique and active.”

This team isn’t the same as last year’s championship group, however, they’re the only Sun Belt team to beat top-seeded Marshall and hold the pieces needed to win a conference title.

“I’ve been a five seed and won it,” Harrow said of the SBC Tournament. “We’ve been a one seed and won it. I’ve seen a lot of different things happen in Pensacola … It can be anybody’s day down there and that is the fun of it.”

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