HARRISONBURG, Va. — After earning its spot in the Colonial Athletic Association championship game, the Elon University women’s basketball team watched the first half of the other semifinal high up in the rafters at the JMU Convocation Center.
The Phoenix left at halftime, going back to its hotel to prepare for tonight’s 7 p.m. tip. In the half it didn’t see, James Madison rose out of an eight-point deficit at the break to beat Drexel University 76-68.
It sets up the matchup that everyone wanted to see, even if no one will admit it. The regular season champion Phoenix taking on the three-time reigning tournament champion Dukes in James Madison’s house of horrors. All that’s riding on it is a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
No big deal or anything.
James Madison head coach Sean O’Regan has seen a lot in his time in Harrisonburg. A 2003 graduate of the school, O’Regan joined the women’s basketball staff as an assistant in 2007-08, spending nine years under Kenny Brooks before filling Brooks’ seat when he left to take Virginia Tech’s head coaching job.
O’Regan’s seen the conference transform, joining in the final year of Old Dominion University’s 17-year stranglehold on the conference championships and watching as the league’s shape changed. The Dukes emerged as the conference’s kingpin in his time, winning five championships and never finishing lower than third.
When Elon joined the CAA, the Phoenix was entering year four of head coach Charlotte Smith’s time at the school, with today’s current senior class being sophomores and two-time All-CAA First Team junior guard Shay Burnett a freshman. The Dukes routed Elon twice in the regular season, but met the Phoenix in the conference semifinals.
That game — a 63-60 James Madison win — has set the precedent for the four that followed, something O’Regan still hasn’t forgotten since becoming a head coach.
“When I watch them on film, this is as good as a team in our league is,” O’Regan said after the Dukes’ 67-61 win at Elon Jan. 20. “We’ve squeaked out the last three before this one. I was here for all of them. There’s never a moment of overlooking Elon or Coach Smith. It’s always like, ‘It’s going to be a battle.’”
On that night, James Madison redshirt senior guard Precious Hall dropped 41 points on Elon in her first game against the Phoenix since the conference semifinal, having missed the 2015-16 season with a torn ACL. Elon said letting the now two-time CAA Player of the Year score 41 was “unacceptable” and vowed to stop her in Harrisonburg three weeks later.
With redshirt senior guard Essence Baucom hounding her, the Phoenix did just that, holding Hall to just five points through three quarters Feb. 12.
“We just wanted to force her to take tough shots, tougher shots than the last time,” Smith said. “I felt like there wasn’t enough activity and pressure on her when she had the ball at our place, so we wanted to pressure her and make her take tough shots. She still got looks, but I felt like they were tougher shot
But it was Hall’s teammates who stepped up early, with redshirt junior forward Amber Porter scoring 20. Hall’s 10-point fourth quarter sealed JMU's 61-54 win, leaving O’Regan satisfied with another close win.
“They’re tough, and that game can go either way,” O’Regan said. “Same with at their place, and same with the last three meetings before that. It’s a testament to our perseverance, but it’s not like we don’t respect them. I’m glad that we pulled it out, but they’re tough, and it’s not going to be any different the next time we play them.”
That next time is tonight, with Elon rolling to back-to-back 28-point wins to cruise into the finals.
James Madison, meanwhile, needed Hall to step up in the second half, scoring 23 of her 37 points after halftime. O’Regan quickly found the way he is going to motivate his team to play.
“This is once in a lifetime,” O’Regan said. "We might never get to host again. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity — to play a championship game on your home floor with what I would expect to be 4 or 5,000 people. That’s what I’m looking forward to, going out there and seizing the opportunity of playing a championship game on your home floor.”
O’Regan paused, looked over at the players next to him on the podium, and continued, “And, I don’t know if these guys have put it together yet, but we’ve got to sit on the other bench and wear another color. Elon’s going to be tough and they’re playing extremely well, but it’s 40 minutes on your home floor for a CAA championship.”
And for Hall, the chance to win a conference championship in front of JMU’s raucous crowd, thunderous pep band and the banners of all the success she’s had in her time in the Shenandoah Valley is not something she's taking lightly.
“I think my motivation is not to let anyone celebrate on my home court,” Hall said. “I’m going to come out better and stronger tomorrow and make sure that doesn’t happen.”
All of these factors combine into what will certainly be a daunting task for the Phoenix to overcome. And, if Elon is able to beat James Madison for the first time, win the CAA and earn its first trip to the NCAA Tournament, it'll only make it that much sweeter.