Durant High graduate and James Madison University freshman Andre Nation will cap off one of the best weeks of his athletic career today when he gathers with teammates and fans to learn who the Dukes will play in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.
Not only did Nation help James Madison win the Colonial Athletic Association championship with a 70-57 victory against Northeastern last week, but his alley-oop dunk earned a spot on ESPN SportsCenter's Top 10 plays.
"It still hasn't hit me that we won yet," Nation said. "It's crazy . . . my phone crashed twice, I got so many texts and tweets."
James Madison bolted to a 26-6 lead in the first half and then held off a furious rally to cap the victory. Nation provided one of the key plays to slow the Huskies' comeback. Fouled while shooting a three-pointer, he made all three free throws to set off a 10-3 run for the Dukes and reverse momentum.
"We knew they would come back on us, but we didn't want it to get that close."
Nation finished with 10 points in the championship game in Richmond, Va., a two-hour drive from the JMU campus in Harrisonburg, Va. The close proximity gave the Dukes a strong group of fans.
"It was a home game," Nation said. We might as well have been at the Convo (Convocation Center)."
He surpassed his season average of 8.6 points per game. That scoring average ranked third among league rookies.
The Dukes' strength comes from its four seniors, but Nation has solidified his contributing role. He was the only player at any position in the CAA to compile at least 30 steals (48), 30 blocks (33) and 30 assists (48).
Most important to Nation, the result this year stood in stark contrast to his last post-season tournament.
Back in 2011, Nation aimed to help Durant win its first region final appearance. The Cougars were within striking range of state power Lake Wales, trailing by eight, early in the third quarter.
Then in a matter of seconds Nation picked up two fouls. He still doesn't know how.
"I don't really blame the refs usually but . . . that was crazy," said Nation. "Coach (Trent) Tice took me out of the game and I was thinking 'Why are you taking me out?'"
But Nation didn't know the officials had mistakenly tagged him with an earlier foul. He was nowhere near the play but got whistled for the call.
The next call sent him to the bench and Lake Wales went on to beat the Cougars 64-38.
"I will never get over that. Never," he said. Fortunately he has much happier things to think about at the moment..
Nation endured even more adversity in the months that followed.
Despite being Durant's all-time leading scorer, an all-county performer, and possessing good height (6-4) and all-around talent Nation could not get a Division I offer.
So he spent last season at Brandon's Faith Baptist Christian School in a unique post-high school prep program.
"I broke my wrist and had some tendinitis in my knee," Nation said. "Basically I sat out all year."
But he did score visits to a number of mid-major Division I programs and was happy to sign on with James Madison.
His expectations for his freshman season there were simple. Work hard, see how things play out.
James Madison's first game was at UCLA. Nation entered at the four-minute mark and with 12:56 showing he had his first college field goal attempt — a swished three pointer.
"I never get nervous," he said. "It was good to know my coach trusted me that much to put me in against a team like that."
Nation ended up playing 25 minutes and is averaging a little more than that. Every part of his game has gone up a notch or more, he says.
Conveniently, Nation was quick to ingratiate himself to JMU fans, scoring a season-best 19 points in his home debut. In early December he was named the conference's Rookie of the Week.
Especially improved from his Cougar days is defense.
"Andre has had a terrific year," Dukes coach Matt Brady said. "I think he's going to be one of the best defensive guards in this league for years to come."
Given the challenges he had to overcome, the excitement of making college basketball's marquee event is very real — and a very different experience than the one Nation was undergoing this time last year.
He plans to savor every moment, beginning today when the team gathers in the Convocation Center to watch the selection show with its fans, excited about the school's first NCAA tournament appearance in 19 years.
"The school spirit (this week) has been awesome," Nation said. "So many people have come up to me and said congratulations."
News from the Associated Press was used in compiling this report. Darek Sharp can be reached at [email protected]