WILMINGTON, N.C., – Sophomore guard Charles Cooke (Trenton, N.J./Trenton Catholic) registered 24 points and nine rebounds as James Madison grabbed a big early lead and weathered a second-half dry spell to defeat UNCW 60-55 in the Colonial Athletic Association men’s basketball opener for both schools Saturday night at Trask Coliseum.
Defending league champion JMU won its CAA opener for the third straight season while improving to 6-9 overall. The Dukes have won three straight and four of their last five. UNCW suffered its fifth straight setback to fall to 6-10. It was Madison’s third straight win in Wilmington while improving to 7-2 against the Seahawks under Matt Brady.
JMU built an early 16-4 lead and never trailed despite a close call down the stretch. Cooke carried the offense during a key stretch of the second half, pouring in nine of 11 JMU points over one spell to give the Dukes a 51-42 lead at the 11:25 juncture.
However, the offense went cold as the Seahawks held the Dukes to two points as part of an eight-minute span with an 11-2 scoring run. That tied the score at 53-53 for the first even mark since it was 2-2.
A shot fake from the arc and driving layup by graduate forward Andrey Semenov (St. Petersburg, Russia/Blue Ridge School) put the Dukes back in front to stay at 55-53 with four minutes to go.
Sophomore forward Taylor Bessick (Philadelphia, Pa./Rise Academy) then stepped up with four rebounds, three defensive and one offensive, to key JMU’s final push. The teams traded empty possessions before Bessick corralled a missed jumper by Cooke and found freshman guard Jackson Kent (High Point, N.C./High Point) on the left wing. Kent ball-faked and put up a 16-footer that proved to be the separating basket for a 57-53 lead with a minute and a half on the clock.
Craig Ponder hit two free throws for the UNCW to cut it back to a single possession at 57-55 with 32.5 seconds remaining, but Cooke sank his opportunities on the other end to make it 59-55 and Semenov added one attempt in the final second to close the 60-55 win.
Cooke was 9-for-12 from the field to post his fifth 20-point game over the last eight outings. His 24 points was one shy of his career high while his nine rebounds matched a career best. Semenov added 13 points to climb to 24th on the school’s career scoring chart. Bessick’s four big late boards pushed him to nine on the night to go with six points while Kent had nine points and six boards.
JMU enjoyed a 40-29 advantage in rebounding to fuel an 18-4 lead in second-chance points. The Dukes shot 45 percent for the game despite a 3-for-14 (21 percent) showing from the arc.
JMU limited UNCW to just the two Ponder free throws over the final five minutes after the 53-53 tie score. The Seahawks shot 35 percent in the second half to finish the game at 40 percent while going 5-for-19 (26 percent) from the arc.
The two teams entered the game as the league’s worst from the arc before combining to go 8-for-33 (24 percent) on the night. It was also a rough night from the free throw line as JMU shot 58 percent (11-for-19) and UNCW shot 52 percent (12-for-23).
JMU played with great energy from the opening tip to grab a 16-4 advantage and force a UNCW timeout five minutes into the contest. The Dukes made six of their first nine field goals while forcing the Seahawks to a 2-for-8 mark.
Madison’s first-half advantage hovered between eight and 11 points for most of the half until the Seahawks followed a Vodanovich putback dunk with seven unanswered points to cut it to 33-29 at the 1:38 mark of the half. However, JMU got two free throws from Semenov and a jumper from Cooke to push the margin to 37-30 at the break.
Cooke led all players with 13 points in the half on 5-for-5 shooting while Semenov added nine. Spruill led the Seahawks with eight in the half. JMU shot 50 percent in the half while UNCW was 46 percent. JMU led on the glass 20-12 for an 8-2 edge in second-chance points.
JMU will travel down the Carolina coast from Wilmington to Charleston as the first-ever CAA opponent for league newcomer College of Charleston. Tuesday’s 7 p.m. contest will also be the first of the season for sophomore guard Andre Nation (Plant City, Fla./Faith Baptist Christian), who was suspended for the first 15 games of the season.