James Madison University women's basketball coach Kenny Brooks patted Kirby Burkholder on the head as the tears rolled down the senior's face on Tuesday night. The Dukes' season was about to come to an end, and Brooks was trying to keep his players upbeat as the final seconds ticked away.
The season may have ended sooner than they would have liked, but there is certainly a lot to be happy about in the JMU women's basketball program.
JMU fell to Texas A&M, 85-69, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Tuesday night in College Station, Texas.
"It was probably the best season I've ever had as a coach," Brooks said in the press conference after the game. "We weren't what we are now at the beginning of the season. We really came together as a team and made sacrifices."
The Dukes only lose two players from this year's squad, which finished 29-6, but they are certainly two key players -- Burkholder and Nikki Newman.
Burkholder and Newman played at Turner Ashby, and serve as great role models for players in the area that if you work hard you can achieve great things. Both struggled early to adjust to the Division 1 level, but turned themselves into very good Division 1 players.
Burkholder set many JMU records and averaged 18.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game for the Dukes. She was the CAA Player of the Year. The biggest thing Burkholder and Newman may have contributed to the team was their leadership.
"I told the underclassmen that they've had great leadership and mentorship all year from those kids, and if they want to come and lead as decorated and celebrated as those two kids, they've got the formula, because Nikki and Kirby have done so much for our university," Brooks said. "It's bittersweet for me because they got to this point, and I've known both of those kids since they were 10 years old. To see what they've accomplished is amazing, but to know that it's over is a little bit bitter for me."
The pair have helped lay the foundation for what could be a great run for the Dukes.
JMU should return 51.1 of its points per game from this season, including sophomore Precious Hall, junior Toia Giggetts and redshirt sophomore Jazmon Gwathmey. The trio each averaged in double figures per game.
The Dukes also had a strong bench, which should be ready to step up and take on bigger roles. I expect sophomore point guard Angela Mickens, who averaged 4.0 assists per game to see even more time next year.
The Dukes dominated in the Colonial Athletic Association, and I think that will continue. JMU has a very young and now experienced squad, which should be a force for years to come.
The Dukes won their first NCAA Tournament game since 1991, a 72-63 win over Gonzaga, and Brooks said he feels the program is starting to earn some respect.
"The whole team is disappointed because we thought we had a Sweet-16 caliber basketball team," Brooks said. "But this is a year to celebrate because we've accomplished so many things. We have to fight and scratch to get any type of respectability on the national stage, and I think that this weekend, if anything, we've proven that we're a very good basketball team, a program that should be noted as one of the better programs in the country."
With success the Dukes should be able to land better recruits over the next few years, and continue to get better and better.
One key ingredient to the current and future success at JMU is Brooks. He has a sterling 281-111 record in 12 seasons at JMU, and I think the best is yet to come.
Brooks knows how to get the most out of his players, and the Dukes play basketball the right way. They don't need superstar players, they share the basketball and play as a team.
If the program continues to make strides like it has been, I think JMU will gain more and more respect and with that comes more and more talent.
The younger players seem to have the right frame of mind, and certainly seem to be very excited for the future.
"We know we can play with the big dogs," Gwathmey said in the postgame press conference. "We're going to come in next season with the same mentality. Who knows? Maybe we'll be back in good ol' Bryan-College Station, Texas, again."
I think if the Dukes can learn from this season, they can take it a step or two further next season. With Brooks at the helm the skies the limit for his program.
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd