After two nail-biters, A.J. Davis and the James Madison Dukes got a reprieve Monday night. The highly-anticipated CAA Championship game was the least competitive of the entire tournament as JMU steamrolled the Huskies en route to an NCAA bid.
Last Monday, I wrote a preview of the way I expected the CAA Tournament to play out. In the Championship I had predicted between James Madison and Northeastern, I discussed how the Huskies had beaten the Dukes 13 days before the championship game would be played. And then I went on to say that it didn't matter, because "that game in February proved to the Dukes that they can hang with the best in the conference."
That confidence was evident on Monday evening when they used stellar first halves from A.J. Davis and Rayshawn Goins to go on a 17-0 run, build a 22-point lead, and cap off their CAA Tournament run with a bid in the NCAA Tournament.
Goins and Davis combined for 30 points in the first twenty minutes as the Dukes marched out and took advantage of Northeastern's second consecutive zombie-like start. Down 5-3 just 1:38 into the game, the Dukes reeled off a 17-0 run to put the Huskies in a tight spot just seven and a half minutes into the game.
If the game 13 days ago didn't boost the Dukes' confidence, that run certainly did.
As the first twenty progressed, Davis and Goins refused to let up, and at half, the Huskies were down by 40-18 points. I think it's safe to say that Bill Coen and Northeastern had hoped for a better start.
I know Jonathan Lee certainly did.
Lee, the Huskies' leading scorer and game winner in their semifinal victory over George Mason, started the championship game... with a whole bunch of nothing. He didn't manage a single point in the first half, which played a huge role in the creation of that 22-point hole.
However, as we watched on Sunday afternoon, Northeastern doesn't care about slow starts. The 22-point gap was actually marginally less worrisome than the 24-point deficit that they overcame against Mason, so it was entirely conceivable to think that they could find a way to tie the game up once more.
And, from the 13:31 mark to the 8:05 mark in the second half, it looked as if they just might.
With 13:31 remaining in the game, Reggie Spencer made a layup to "shrink" the gap to just 18 points, still down 48-30. Over the next five and a half minutes, the Huskies outscored the Dukes 12-3 and managed to bring the deficit down to single digits with contributions from Lee, who scored all 14 of his points in the second half, and a surprise appearance from freshman guard Derrico Peck who stepped up when Joel Smith recorded his fourth foul of the game.
It felt just like Sunday's contest with George Mason, and the Huskies were rolling.
And then Joel Smith fouled out.
With over seven minutes left, Joel Smith accidentally fouled Andre Nation from behind the three-point line. He hit all three free throws, Smith was done for the night, and the Dukes cruised the rest of the way to a 13-point victory.
So now James Madison galavants to the NCAA Tournament, ready to get March Mad. According to a number of bracketologists, odds are good that they will be stuck in a play-in game, adding another step to their long-shot Cinderella hopes.
But the long odds didn't matter to the Dukes on Monday evening. The win felt good. And no player felt better about the win than Dukes senior Devon Moore.
When he was asked how it felt to win this game, Moore was speechless for four long, blissful seconds. He didn't have the correct words to sum up what happened to his team in the past three days.
Because he, and every last one of his teammates, said everything they needed to out on the court.