WILLIAMSBURG — Tim Rusthoven donned a yellow hardhat and happily bounced up and down in the student section with his William and Mary teammates after one of the program's more satisfying performances in recent memory.
A big first half at both ends of the floor provided a cushion, and the Tribe kept James Madison at arm's length in a 78-56 win Saturday in front of a noisy, larger-than-usual crowd at Kaplan Arena.
"I think the thing that sticks out to me is defense," Rusthoven said. "We talked about it all week. We played really good defense, we had a lot of enthusiasm on defense, too. That's another thing that we're really trying to pride ourselves on as a team and trying to get better at, and I think we did that tonight and it worked out for us."
The Tribe (10-6, 2-1 CAA) snapped a four-game losing streak to JMU, which included a loss in last season's CAA tournament, and notched its most lopsided conference win since a 79-54 decision against Northeastern on Feb. 11, 2012.
"We definitely didn't forget about that," guard Marcus Thornton said of the team's recent history versus JMU. "It's just last year, three times … the CAA tournament hurt the most. We definitely had a chip on our shoulder this game and wanted to come out and be good, execute our stuff and come out with a win. We were able to do that."
JMU (6-13, 1-4 CAA) lost its fourth in a row and bears little resemblance to last year's CAA tournament champ and NCAA team. The Dukes start four sophomores and a freshman, and have just one senior on the roster.
But Dukes coach Matt Brady said the difference wasn't as simple as experience versus inexperience. His experienced teams faced early deficits versus the Tribe, as well, and had to scratch back.
"We've been in that same boat at halftime three years in a row now," he said. "I've cautioned my team that this is a good team. They cut hard, they play hard, they play fast, and they're hard to simulate in practice. When they cut, screen and come off those ball-screens and dribble-handoffs, they're making shots. It's really four years in a row we've been in a deep well, trying to get out of it by halftime."
JMU scored 10 points inside the first five minutes and led 10-4. The Dukes didn't reach 20 until the 3:06 mark of the first half, as the Tribe was well on its way to a 42-24 halftime lead.
W&M shot an absurd 70.8 percent in the first half (17-for-24) and made 7 of 12 from 3-point range. The Tribe patiently carved up JMU's defenses, punctuated by some individual artistry from Thornton (20 points), who simply elevated and knocked down 3-pointers. All nine W&M players who saw the floor in the first half scored.
"We're good shooters," W&M coach Tony Shaver said. "We shoot the ball, and we've got a lot of guys that can shoot the ball. But the thing that got it going for us was our defense. We defended hard, we rebounded hard. As a result, we got transitional baskets, and that was very important for us tonight.
"The fact that we defended and rebounded gave us a chance to score in the open floor, and we've got some pretty good open floor players that we like to put in that position."
W&M's shooting cooled off in the second half, but the Tribe played well enough defensively that JMU was unable to challenge. The Dukes drew as close as 61-47 on a 3-pointer by Ron Curry with 6:30 remaining.
The Tribe scored the next eight points – a 3-pointer from Brandon Britt, a nifty reverse layup by Omar Prewitt, and a second-chance Thornton trey after two offensive rebounds – to extend the lead to 69-47.
Andre Nation (25 points) led the Dukes, whose task was made even more difficult when leading scorer Charles Cooke went down with a high ankle sprain in the first half. He came out of the locker room at halftime wearing a protective boot, and Brady didn't sound hopeful afterward about a quick recovery.
As JMU struggles, the Tribe appears to have found traction on defense and in rebounding. Shaver pointed out that W&M allowed Drexel 43 second-half points in a win and squandered a chance to win at Delaware by giving up 44 second-half points in a 76-71 loss.
"It sounds simplistic, but I think we played with more intensity," Shaver said of the improved defense. "We played with more passion and more energy and I think we played each possession more consistently.
"We've got to learn to play for 40 minutes of great effort and great intensity on the defensive end, and I thought we did that tonight."
Fairbank can be reached at 757-247-4637Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun