HARRISONBURG, VA – They do not call Virginia a battleground state for nothing.
With a long-awaited election behind us, it’s now time for women’s basketball season, another long-awaited moment in 2016.
Similar to watching the election results on Tuesday night, James Madison University (JMU) and No. 13 the University of Tennessee basketball game in Harrisonburg, Virginia kept everyone on their toes, with a close contest late in the night.
JMU’s Precious Hall was the first lady of JMU throughout the first quarter. Hall began the game strong, scoring the Dukes’ first five points and continuing to lead her team on to an early lead over the Lady Vols.
As Hall had her breakout moment, the crowd was pumped like a campaign rally, cheers echoing every James Madison basket, as the Dukes went on an early run, grabbing an unexpected 7-3 lead.
Hall continued to dominate the court, making it difficult for the Lady Vols to keep up with her hot shots, steals and rebounds. At one point, Hall had 10 of Dukes’ 12 points.
However, both teams came out to compete, knowing much was on the line, and the Lady Vols managed to stay close due to free throws -- despite being unable keep up with JMU’s momentum. Tennessee missed open shots, forcing them to depend on points from the line, acting much like swing votes, as they kept the Lady Vols close, finishing the half just one point behind JMU, 19-18.
Hall finished the first quarter with 15 points.
After leaving the first quarter down by only one, the Lady Vols managed to finally tie their opponents, 21-21, marking the beginning of a long, close battle in the second quarter.
But just like an election, anything can happen at anytime, and Hall’s hot shot unexpectedly fizzled in the second quarter, a major reason why JMU could not quite keep up with the dominance of Jamie Nared, who along with her teammates, upped their game immensely in the second quarter -- the game turned into an intense battle, with a lot of contact plays.
“It was one of those nights. It’s my first game back and just going out there and trying not to hold back. I think we had a lot of energy to start off with and we made sure coming into the game that we had more energy than they did, but we had a lot of spurts and missed free throws that got us out of the game,” Hall said.
Tennessee slowly took the lead in part to baskets by Mercedes Russell and Nared, and continued their excellent shooting from the free-throw line in the second quarter. By the end of the first half, the Lady Vols were 13 for 16 from the line.
A momentum change came for JMU, with a solid transition layup by Da’Lishia Griffin, which helped the Dukes sneak back up to the Lady Vols, 33-30.
However, back-to-back steals by the Lady Vols 43-33 sent the team soaring, closing out the first wave of basketball “exit polling” at 46-39 to end the first half.
“It was [a] gutsy game. We knew it was going to be hard and they bring out the best in everybody. We didn’t have an answer for Hall. She’s a special young lady who has a will to play as hard as she can. We played in spurts. I thought our bench was solid and they tested us early and tested us the whole game. I think last years’ team would have folded and this team did not,” Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick said.
All bets were on entering the second half, as both teams continued to stay close in the third quarter, as both the Dukes and Lady Vols struggled to score in the first four minutes of the third quarter, keeping the score at 41-48 with six minutes left.
A strong showing from JMU’s Kamiah Smalls, brought her team within four of the Tennessee, 46-50, slowly making a comeback, banning together as a team, grabbing multiple steals and working the ball on offense.
Multiple mistakes late in the third quarter, caused both teams to hit a stand still, but nevertheless, the Dukes to slowly crept back into the race, in part to a huge three-pointer by Hall with a little over a minute left in the quarter.
As JMU’s Hall reappeared, putting herself and the Dukes back in the race for a comeback win, her huge basket lead to massive cheers, reassuring that JMU was still in the game, and had definitely already won the popular vote from fans on their home court.
“She was in the zone. I know how it feels and I know how it looks. She hit very tough shots and I can count how many of them were just wide open. She pulled out all of the stops and it’s very hard when a scorer like that gets heated up and gets in the zone,” Tennessee’s Diamond DeShields said.
The final push for both teams came in the fourth quarter, as JMU grabbed the first basket of the fourth quarter. Hall once again regained her role as campaign manager for the Dukes, scoring crucial baskets for her team, although they began to trail the Lady Vols once again.
“They got better with our two on two. I think they honed in and finished and I don’t think we did. We went cold during that home stretch and that’s how games are won,” JMU head coach Sean O’Regan said.
Tensions were high inside the arena, many plays causing both teams to begin protesting calls and the Lady Vols, Nared exiting the game after fouling out.
After a long, emotional and intense fourth quarter, the final results of the game eventually rolled in, and much like a state on election night, had to turn one color, and on Friday night, it turned orange as the Tennessee Lady Vols won over the JMU Dukes, 81-69.
“Our leadership is so much better [this year]. We have an unselfishness about us, so the difference is that we are playing together as a team. We weren’t a bunch of individuals out there and that makes a huge difference. We huddled around each other and we were positive,” said Warlick.
Leading scorers for the Lady Vols were Nared with 19, Alexa Middleton with 18 and Russell with 17. For the Dukes, Hall lead in scoring with 39, followed by Smalls with 15.
O’Regan on Hall’s performance, “As soon as I saw her shoot her first shot, I knew we were in business. She’s got that look and I know that we are going to be ok. I couldn’t get her out enough to get her back fresh. She sets the tone for us and I love the way she attacked today. I’m glad that she came back for a spotlight game and was a standout.”
With so many parallels of Tuesday night’s election, we can’t help but look upon the rest of the women’s college basketball season, wondering if the powerful dynasties can prevail, or if the underdogs will can fight to come out on top.