By Tommy Keeler Jr.
HARRISONBURG -- James Madison University entered Thursday's Colonial Athletic Conference women's basketball game with Drexel tied for first place, by the time the game was over there was no doubt who the team to beat in the CAA is this season.
The Dukes dominated the last 10 minutes of the first half and didn't look back en route to a 74-47 win over Drexel at the JMU Convocation Center.
"I knew it would be tough here. The way JMU is playing I think they're worthy of a top 25 [poll] spot," Drexel coach Denise Dillon said. "I was hoping tempo-wise we could control things and keep it closer, but play after play they continued to make, and we struggled immensely from the field."
The Dukes used a 23-8 run to close out the half and pull away for good.
JMU's defense forced seven turnovers during that span, which helped lead to easy baskets on offense.
"Drexel's very persistent with their offense -- set flair screens, back door cuts, and tonight we just communicated so well," JMU senior Nikki Newman said. "And I think that was huge for us tonight."
Early in the game, Drexel's defense was able to keep leading scorer Kirby Burkholder from getting many looks on offense, but other players stepped up for JMU.
Precious Hall scored seven of her game-high 16 points in the first seven minutes to give JMU a 14-8 lead with 13:15 left in the first half. JMU trailed only once in the game (5-4).
The Dragons (8-9, 3-1 CAA) cut the lead to 14-12 on back-to-back baskets by Alexis Smith and Abby Redick.
Burkholder then hit a 3-pointer for her first points of the game, on only her third shot attempt.
A basket by Sarah Curran cut the lead to 17-14 with 9:20 left in the half. That's when JMU finally took charge of the game.
Newman had six of her 14 points during the decisive run, draining two 3-pointers late in the first half. Six different players scored during the spurt in the first half.
"We worked on [Newman's 3-point] shot a little the last two days," JMU coach Kenny Brooks said of Newman. "I thought her [3-point shot] looked very good. if she can start hitting that 3 like that, it's really going to open things up for us."
The Dukes (14-4, 4-0 CAA) continued to dominate in the second half, especially on the defensive end. Drexel made only four baskets in the first 17 minutes of the second half.
JMU also did a tribute to former JMU standout and all-time leading scorer Dawn Evans, who will be having a kidney transplant in the next few weeks. At halftime, the crowd chanted "get well Dawn" as a camera went around showing the fans' cheers in a tape that will be sent to Evans. The message lasted for a minute. There was also a banner at one of the doors that fans were allowed to sign. Fans are also encouraged to send Evans get well messages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, using #GetWellDawn.
Drexel was led by Smith with 13 points.
Newman almost had a triple-double with seven assists and seven rebounds, while Burkholder finished with 14 points and seven rebounds. Jazmon Gwathmey had 13 points and five rebounds, and Toia Giggetts had 10 points for JMU.
JMU had lost at home to Drexel the last two times they met, and were knocked out of the CAA Tournament by the Dragons last year. The players said beating Drexel added a little motivation, but mostly they just want to keep getting better as a team.
"We take every game the same," Burkholder said. "We just want to come out and prove what we are and how good we can be.
"We want to do that to every team we play and prove that we're the best."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd