The 27 points earned from junior guard Luke Loewe helped the Tribe (20-10, 12-5 CAA) escape James Madison (9-18, 2-14 CAA) 78-74 Saturday and maintain its hold on the 2 seed in the impending Colonial Athletic Association tournament.
The Dukes had a shot to tie the game with less than 30 seconds remaining, but tight defense from senior center Nathan Knight forced the miss that allowed the College to avoid the major upset.
The Tribe led by as many as 14 in a first half that featured the Dukes doing all they could to pressure the post and shut down Knight. Head coach Dane Fischer noted the importance of having shooters on the outside to counter the Duke’s strategy after the game and the importance of placing freshman guard Miguel Ayesa in the game.
“To start the game, they really packed it in the paint and they just didn’t guard a couple of guys on the perimeter,” Fischer said. “They really made a conscious effort to keep it out of there. One of the big things was getting Miguel in the game, and he hit a three to stretch it out for us. And, obviously, Luke got going from the outside.”
Loewe started warm and only got hotter throughout the game, burying 10 of his 11 shot attempts including six of seven from three-point range. He noted that his confidence continued to build throughout as shots kept falling.
“You see that first one go in, and it kind of feels better as the game goes on,” Loewe said. “I just kind of got in a rhythm and felt good the whole game.”
A Loewe jumper with just over two minutes to go in the opening half delivered that 14-point Tribe advantage, 38-24. But it was then that the Dukes found their footing, notching a 7-0 run at the end of the period and continuing into the beginning of the second half to tie the game with just over 18 minutes remaining.
The College fought back with a run of its own though, with a Knight bucket off an Ayesa feed extending the lead back to nine with 13:36 left in the game. The Dukes once again responded, putting together another run to tie the game with just under six minutes to play and then gained the lead 72-71 on a triple from JMU forward Zach Jacobs with 2:55 left.
A three and layup from Loewe on the next two Tribe possessions then made it 76-74. A missed three from the Dukes and a Knight free throw gave James Madison a chance to tie it, but the attempt from Jacobs was off the mark. A free throw from senior forward Andy Van Vliet secured the win.
In addition to Loewe’s career-high 27, graduate transfer guard Bryce Barnes and Knight scored 12 apiece and Van Vliet added eight. Ayesa chipped in eight and graduate transfer guard Tyler Hamilton added six with three assists.
After the game, Barnes noted the necessity for a short memory in games where the opponent goes on multiple prolonged scoring runs.
“One thing we talk about as players is the next-play mindset,” Barnes said. “There were a few times when we needed that stop … but we didn’t get it. In the past, we might have broke down or let it affect us. But in our minds, we had to get it on the other end.”
Fischer was pleased with the team’s response to the multiple comeback attempts from the Dukes.
“That was a really entertaining game,” Fischer said. “Great atmosphere in here today as we anticipated it would be with it being their final home game in this building. I was really proud of our team’s ability to withstand the runs that JMU kept making. They really got going in the second half. We kept talking about trying to keep them out of the paint and get some stops. They kept scoring, and our guys did a really nice job of answering the call on the other end. And Luke Loewe was pretty good for us on offense.”
The Tribe returns to Williamsburg for its final game of the season against Elon on Saturday, Feb. 29 at 4 p.m.. It will also be senior night for Knight and Van Vliet.