UPPER MARLBORO, Md. (AP) - Seniors Kirby Burkholder and Nikki Newman wore nets around their necks, and Burkholder smiled as she looked at a present from the James Madison band - a small laminated poster with lots of signatures and featuring the word “KIRBY’D.”
Kirby’d, indeed. After two years away from the NCAA tournament while Delaware ruled with Elena Delle Donne, the Dukes have moved back from second tier to top tier, beating the defending champion Blue Hens 70-45 Sunday to win the CAA tournament for the first time since 2011.
“The WNIT, it was fun,” Newman said. “But we were tired of it.”
Jazmon Gwathmey had a career-high 20 points and tied a career-high with 14 rebounds, and conference player of the year Burkholder had 11 points, seven rebounds and four steals for the Dukes (28-5), who outhustled the Blue Hens (20-10) to loose balls and dominated the boards. James Madison forced 22 turnovers, had a 12-5 advantage in offensive rebounds in the first half and led 38-18 at the break.
The way James Madison coach Kenny Brooks described the game fit the old cliche: If it had been a fight, they would have stopped it.
“I said, you’re going throw a left-handed punch, then you’ve got to throw a right-handed punch, and they’re still not going to go down,” Brooks said. “Then you have to throw a left-handed punch again, and that’s what they did. And they threw a left and a right and kept on going.”
Delaware won the last two CAA titles and earned a regular spot in the Top 25 behind Delle Donne, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the WNBA draft a year ago. The Blue Hens are still competitive - they were the No. 2 seed after posting a 10-6 regular season conference record - but Della Donne’s departure opened the door for the Dukes, who rolled to a 15-1 record and swept through the tournament by winning three games by an average of 16.7 points.
“We went to the NCAA tournament before Elena. We obviously went to the NCAA tournament with Elena. And we will go back to the NCAA tournament without Elena. … Delaware basketball is more than Elena Delle Donne,” Delaware coach Tina Martin said. “I know most people were sleeping and sometimes they do fall asleep on women’s basketball, but, you know, they can go back to sleep.”
Burkholder was the standard-setter this season, and she set a tournament record with 22 rebounds in the semifinal win over Drexel. Sunday wasn’t her best game - she was 3 for 12 from the field - but she helped lead a defensive effort that held the Blue Hens to eight field goals in the first half and 31 percent shooting for the game.
During one sequence late in the first half, Burkholder made a steal at one end and saved the ball from going out of bounds at the other end, a play that eventually led to a pair of free throws from teammate Toia Giggets. On the next possession, Burkholder sliced through the Delaware defense as if she were skiing a slalom to finish a layup that gave the Dukes a 16-point lead.
The term “Kirby’d” comes from Burkholder’s signature move that she makes when she hits a 3-pointer. She raises her thumb and index finger to make a circle around one eye, with the other three fingers extended. She did it at the end of a funky dance move when she was introduced with the starting lineups, but she “Kirby’d” only once during the game because she went just 1 for 7 from 3-point range.
Instead, the statistical star was Gwathmey, the only James Madison starter who wasn’t selected first-, second- or third-team all-conference at the annual banquet Wednesday.
“Jazmon was the one who didn’t get it,” Brooks said. “I told her, ‘You’re one of the best 15 players in this league. Go out and prove it.’ And she went out and she proved it.”
Akeema Richards scored 12 points to lead Delaware. Kelsey Buchanan, who averaged 17.5 points in her first two tournament games, finished with six points on 2-for-12 shooting and committed eight turnovers.
Follow Joseph White on Twitter: https://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP
Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.