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Liberty grad Gwathmey sets career-highs to lead James Madison to CAA tournament title

Sunday, Mar. 16 | By Jeff Malmgren
Jazmon Gwathmey cuts off a piece of net Sunday in Show Place Arena after her James Madison Dukes won the CAA tournament championship. --Courtesy photo
Jazmon Gwathmey tried to blend in last season.

Now she's outstanding.

A 2011 Liberty High graduate, Gwathmey played the best game of her college career Sunday and led James Madison University to a 70-45 win over the Delaware Blue Hens in the final of the Colonial Athletic Association women's basketball tournament. That victory gave the Dukes their seventh CAA title and first bid to the NCAA tournament since 2011.

A No. 11 seed in the NCAA tournament, James Madison will play No. 6 Gonzaga on March 23 in College Station, Texas.

Gwathmey was named Most Outstanding Player of the CAA tournament after producing career-highs Sunday with 20 points, 14 rebounds and eight made free throws at Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, Md. That honor could be seen as a sort of mea culpa by the CAA after Gwathmey was left off the regular season all-conference teams. James Madison coach Kenny Brooks thought the redshirt sophomore deserved an all-conference honor, which he expressed after the CAA awards banquet Wednesday.

"I told her, 'You're one of the best 15 players in this league, go out there and prove it" during the tournament, Brooks said. "She went out and she proved it."

Over the course of three tournament games, Gwathmey scored 44 points on 14-for-22 field goal shooting and 14-for-17 free throw shooting. She also amassed 25 rebounds (14 offensive), eight assists, three blocks and two steals.

That cumulative performance earned Gwathmey the Most Outstanding Player award over teammate Kirby Burkholder, who was the regular season CAA Player of the Year and set a conference record with 22 rebounds during the tournament semifinals.

"I was shocked when they called my name," Gwathmey said. "I felt like I was just doing my regular thing that I've done the whole season."

She was, and she wasn't.

Gwathmey shot typically well Sunday by making 8 of 10 free throws and 6 of 11 field goals to help the top-seeded Dukes improve their record to 28-5. But, with 20 points and 14 rebounds, Gwathmey posted her first double-double of the season and out-produced her season averages of 10.1 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. Plus, she had two assists, two blocks and a steal against No. 2 Delaware (20-10).

"I just wanted it bad," Gwathmey said of the CAA trophy and NCAA berth. "Send our seniors out the right way."

James Madison played in the WNIT each of the past two seasons after qualifying for the NCAA tournament in 2011 and 2010, prior to Gwathmey's arrival in Harrisonburg.

"The WNIT, it's cool but everybody wants to go to the big dance," she said. "This is something we've been working for since August, so it's all worth it now. … All the 6 a.m. runs, every sprint, every breath."

And even the sacrifice of a traditional spring break. Sunday was the last day of James Madison's spring break. Gwathmey and her teammates spent all that time off preparing for and playing in the CAA tournament.

"But we won a championship and we're going to the national tournament," Gwathmey said. "I had a better spring break weekend, by far, than anybody's ever had."

Over the past two seasons, Brooks frequently talked about Gwathmey's potential, even when she was a true freshman. Her breakout during the CAA tournament this weekend was the metamorphosis of potential to production.

"This is exactly what I envisioned," Brooks said. "She's one of the most talented kids I've ever coached."

Gwathmey's role has expanded a lot since last season, when she averaged only 6.2 points per game. She wasn't as assertive as a redshirt freshman.

"I did what I thought was needed – getting the 50/50 balls or scrapping on the boards, helping out on defense," Gwathmey said. "I'm more confident now."

It especially shows in her shooting. Gwathmey ranks fifth in the CAA in field goal shooting at 47.0 percent and second in free throw shooting at 83.3 percent.

"I go up and know I'm going to make it," said Gwathmey, who made a pair of jump shots Sunday and a handful of layups in transition. "Just confidence."

She's also become a catalyst for the James Madison offense. Against Delaware, Brooks frequently set Gwathmey up with the ball on the wing so she could penetrate off the dribble and initiate an offensive attack.

"We've got a package of plays for her, just as many as we do for Kirby," Brooks said. "Her athleticism – she's so quick. She's just a mismatch for a lot of people. … We go through her sometimes."

Players who are Gwathmey's height – 6-foot-2 – often struggle to guard her on the perimeter while guards have a size disadvantage, especially with Gwathmey's impressive wing span.

Regardless, opponents typically focus their defensive attention on the likes of Burkholder, a senior who averages 18.3 points per game. Sophomore Preciuos Hall (13.6) and junior Toia Giggetts (13.2) also score more than Gwathmey.

Gwathmey is "a great fifth option. When you have an option like that, you're going to be a fantastic basketball team," Brooks said. "She knows there's a pecking order, so to speak. At JMU we've got some very talented upperclassmen.

"All these kids up here would be stars on another team," Brooks said of his starting five. "But they sacrifice."

Perhaps that's why James Madison dominated in the CAA this season. The Dukes went 15-1 in the conference during the regular season and have outscored all their NCAA opponents by 20.3 points per game.

"I've never experienced anything like this," Brooks said. "It's almost been UConn-esque. … These kids have done a fantastic job all year long not letting up."

That was the case Sunday. The Dukes built a 38-18 halftime lead, expanded that to 55-26 and never again let the Blue Hens get within 23 points. They won by 25 points thanks to a typically stifling defense that forced 22 turnovers and held the Blue Hens to 31.0 percent field goal shooting.

Gwathmey was recognized Wednesday as an anchor of that defense at the CAA awards banquet. She made the all-defensive team and, with a pair of blocks Sunday, now has 53 blocks this season, which is tied for the third highest single-season total in James Madison history.

"I'm really good on timing," Gwathmey said. "I've perfected it, pretty much."

Gwathmey's 87 career blocks ranks No. 9 on the Dukes' all-time list.

"It's not a goal of mine but … hopefully by my senior year, I'm No. 1," she said.

Hollee Franklin is James Madison's leader in career blocks with 186.

Gwathmey, of course, has two more seasons to add to her total. Plus, with Burkholder and Nikki Newman set to gradate following this season, Gwathmey's other responsibilities will increase next season.

"It's going to open up more for her," Brooks said of Gwathmey in the offense. "She's going to be a fantastic player."

The Dukes also continue to expect Gwathmey to dunk in the future. She's been on the cusp the past two seasons.

"She needs a couple more squats," Brooks said. "I think next year."

For now, Gwathmey and the Dukes will focus on trying to win their first NCAA tournament game since 1991, when they advanced to the Sweet 16. With a win over Gonzaga in the first round, James Madison would advance to play the winner of a matchup between No. 3 Texas A&M and No. 14 North Dakota.

"We have players that can shoot, players that can drive, players that can rebound, a post game," Gwathmey said. "We have everything.

"We're going to be a threat."

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