Last season, Jazmon Gwathmey finished the Colonial Athletic Association tournament with a redshirt.
She ended it this season with red eyes.
The James Madison University forward didn’t wish for either, but both bode well for her future wearing purple and gold. After sitting out last season and then losing Saturday in the CAA semifinals, Gwathmey now has the skill and taste of disappointment to help lead the Dukes into the future.
“I know she'll be tremendous for us the next three years,” JMU women’s basketball coach Kenny Brooks said. “She's the kind of kid you can win a [CAA] championship with.”
Gwathmey, a 2011 Liberty High graduate, hoped to do that this season as a redshirt freshman starter, but Drexel stonewalled the Dukes with a defensive performance Saturday that held James Madison to its lowest score in Brooks’ 11-year history at the university. Drexel defeated James Madison, 50-34, in the CAA semifinals at Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, Md., knocking the Dukes out of contention for the CAA title and a bid to the NCAA tournament.
“I wanted to give our seniors a ring," Gwathmey said through tears after the loss. “I've [always] wanted to go to the NCAA” tournament.
James Madison will finish the season playing in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT), beginning with a game Thursday at home in Harrisonburg against North Carolina A&T.
Gwathmey arrived at JMU as a true freshman after the Dukes had won the CAA tournament championship during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons. They lost in the semifinals last season with Gwathmey using a redshirt due to an undisclosed medial issue that kept her out of preseason practices. She could have returned to play at some point during the season, but Brooks convinced her to redshirt.
It took a mix of coercion and corrosion.
“It was kind of voluntary-mandatory,” Brooks said. “I gave her the option. She really didn't like it. I gave her the option again and she asked a lot of questions. … I had to talk her into it.”
Brooks wore her down. So instead of starting behind the curve as a true freshman, Gwathmey is now acclimated to the college game and has three seasons of eligibility left.
“The best thing we ever did,” Brooks said. “Now she's going to be [playing] a fifth year where she's going to be tremendous and understand everything. That first year she probably knew nothing.”
Gwathmey is a coach’s ideal young player because she absorbs every drop of knowledge on the court. Brooks calls her Sponge Bob.
“She’s hanging on every word – ‘Yes sir. Yes sir,’” he said. “She has better instincts now. Her work ethics is tremendous. She's not as tough as we want her to be, but she's tougher than she was when she got in here.”
Gwathmey also became more confident over the past 19 months.
“I got more comfortable with taking the ball, shooting the ball, rebounding,” she said. “I learned that I'm actually more athletic than I think I am, just by learning things that Coach teaches me.”
Gwathmey started six of the Dukes’ first 10 games this season before moving to the bench for a about a month. She then returned to the starting lineup for the past 11 games.
Her increased role coincided with a season-ending foot injury suffered by Nikki Newman. Gwathmey moved from the “three” position to the“four” following that injury.
“Most of it had to do with her play and her potential,” Brooks said of Gwathmey returning to the starting lineup. “There are a lot of different things we can do because of her versatility.”
Gwathmey showed that potential during the CAA quarterfinals. She had a career-high 14 rebounds and four blocks to help the second-seeded Dukes beat No. 7 Towson, 59-48.
“I was hungry,” she said. “I wanted it.”
Previously, against Towson, Feb. 21, Gwathmey scored a career-high 17 points on 8-for-8 field goal shooting, a streak that fell one basket short of James Madison’s record for consecutive made field goals. Over the entire season, she averages 21.9 minutes, 5.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, .8 blocks and .7 assists per game.
Gwathmey even earned a spot on the CAA all-rookie team.
“It meant a lot,” she said of the honor. “I'm not just a sixth man or fifth man. … It means I'm contributing to my team.”
Similarly, Gwathmey’s former Liberty High teammate, Liz Wood, recently won the America East Conference Rookie of the Year award while playing for Maine.
“I'm proud of her,” Gwathmey said. “She's been working hard.”
Gwathmey has too. In fact, Brooks would be surprised if Gwathmey’s all-rookie status is only the first CAA honor of her career.
“I've had a lot of kids come through here that are very, very talented, and I think she's as talented as anyone that I've had,” he said. “By the time she graduates, I think she's going to have the chance to be one of the better players in this league.”
Currently, Elena Delle Donne of Delaware is indisputably the best player in the CAA over the past two seasons.
Gwathmey often drew the defensive assignment of Delle Donne when the Dukes played Delaware – a 71-64 loss Feb. 10 and a 61-60 loss Feb. 24.
“She knows how to score the ball,” Gwathmey said of the projected WNBA first round pick. “I liked guarding her. It was a challenge.”
Delle Donne’s top-seeded Delaware team won the CAA title Sunday for the second consecutive season by beating the No. 3 Drexel team that upset No. 2 James Madison in the semifinals.
The Dukes struggled in the semifinals against Drexel’s stalwart 2-3 zone defense. They scored only 14 points in the entire second half and finished with a 27.6 shooting percentage.
The Dragons also out-rebounded JMU, 39-37, and used a thicket of perimeter screens to free up 3-point shooters. They made 6 of 11 (54.5 percent) 3-pointers in the first half to build a lead as large as 23-10 (26-20 at halftime).
“We were in the right place, just a step behind,” Gwathmey said of defending Drexel’s shooters.
Meanwhile, using a zone, Drexel shrunk the paint against a JMU offense that thrives when penetrating off the dribble.
“We were relying on our jump shots,” Gwathmey said. “We're very physical and we like to get to the basket. It was just too packed in there to get anything in the paint.”
Like the rest of the Dukes, Gwathmey is most effective attacking off the dribble. In fact, dunking is still on her college to-do list.
“She’s gone up to try to dunk the ball a couple times,” Brooks said earlier this season about JMU practices. “She hits the back of the rim, but she’s up there.
“She's gotten stronger,” Brooks said Saturday of the still-lanky Gwathmey.“But we plan to make her [even] stronger.”
Brooks said no James Madison player has ever dunked in a game. With an eagle's wingspan, the 6-foot-2 Gwathmey can already easily grab the rim and could eventually become the first to dunk.
“Next year it will probably be something that I do,” Gwathmey said.
/ On Twitter @jeffmalmgren.