James Madison has risen to No. 22 by pulling off two miraculous wins in hostile arenas and by rallying in the final minutes for a clutch victory at home.
Now it’s time for James Madison (4-0) to be tested in a completely different environment as it faces Southern Illinois (3-0) in the Cancun Challenge on Tuesday in Cancun, Mexico.
Coming off a thrilling win in an electric arena at home, 76-73 over Radford, how will the Dukes fare in a tropical location, where the atmosphere will be breezy and the clamor in the gym will be muted?
“We’re not winning that game without our crowd. They just lifted us up,” James Madison coach Mark Byington said on Friday night after his team outscored Radford 6-0 in the final 3:35.
The Dukes got stops on the Highlanders’ final six possessions, including a key steal by defensive stopper Xavier Brown with 9 seconds left. It was Brown’s third of the game in his 11 scrappy minutes on the floor.
“I love to stop people,” Brown said. “I love to see the frustration in somebody’s face when they can’t get to where they want to or to score.”
Terrence Edwards Jr. (21 points, seven rebounds), T.J. Bickerstaff (20 points, eight rebounds) and Julien Wooden (15 points) supplied the offensive firepower as the Dukes protected their first ranking in program history.
With the sudden national acclaim that came after their 79-76 overtime upset of then-No. 4 Michigan State on opening night, the Dukes have continued to be at their best at the end of games.
In halting Kent State’s 23-game home winning streak in two overtimes, 113-108, James Madison needed five points in the final 3.8 seconds of regulation from Noah Freidel to shock the Golden Flashes.
“We’re kind of finding out who rises to the top at the end of games. It seems to be everybody,” Brown said.
Southern Illinois arrives in Cancun riding a quick start with three decisive wins, though it has yet to play a team rated better than No. 250 on KenPom.com.
The Salukis went 23-10 last year but lost top scorer and rebounder Marcus Domask as a grad transfer to Illinois.
Xavier Johnson has taken over the lead role, pacing Southern Illinois in points (19.7) and assists (5.7) per game. AJ Ferguson averages 13.0 points.
The Salukis’ top six scorers are all hitting better than 52 percent of their shots from the floor, including Trent Brown (11.0 ppg), who has made 10 of 17 attempts (58.8 percent) from 3-point range.
Providing muscle inside are 6-foot-8 Clarence Rupert, who averages 9.0 points and 9.3 rebounds, and 6-10, 273-pound Scottie Ebube, who adds 9.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.
Southern Illinois is anxious to see what it can do against tougher competition.
“It’s why we play in these type of tournaments. It’s why the guys come here to play this type of schedule,” fourth-year coach Bryan Mullins said. “It’ll be a great opportunity for us.”
The winner of the James Madison-Southern Illinois game will face Fresno State (2-1) or New Mexico State (3-2) in the title game on Wednesday.
–Field Level Media
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