Darling’s late shot lifts Delaware over JMU

Jacob Cushing, Nate Darling and Kevin Anderson celebrate after the final buzzer. Delaware Sports Information/Sarah Boekholder

NEWARK — Asked if he called ‘bank’ on his game-winning shot, Nate Darling just laughed.

“Yeah, of course,” the Delaware guard answered with a smile.

Not that Darling particularly cared if his short jumper from a step inside the foul line — which banked in off the backboard — was picture-perfect or not.

He only cared that the shot, which came with just five seconds left, gave the Blue Hens another heart-pounding victory, this one, 80-78, over underdog James Madison in a CAA men’s basketball thriller at the Carpenter Center on Saturday afternoon.

Even after Darling’s shot, Delaware had to hang on as the Dukes’ Deshon Parker raced down the court and drove to the basket only to have his shot fall off the rim just before the final buzzer. Only then could the Hens (8-4 CAA, 18-7 overall) claim their sixth win in a row.

Despite the disparity in records with JMU (2-11 CAA, 9-15 overall), Delaware was ahead for just 11:50 of the contest.

The Hens led only twice in the final 15 minutes. Four of their last six victories have now come by one two points.

“Every game in this league has come down to the wire,” said coach Martin Ingelsby. “It’s not for the faint of heart. … I mean our league is brutal. It’s unbelievably balanced and competitive.

“I just keep telling them, ‘Let’s keep winning and see what happens above us (in the CAA standings).’ We can only control what we can control.”

In a contest where Delaware trailed by as many as seven points in the second half, the final 23 seconds played out without any stoppages.

After Parker (23 points) tied the contest at 78-78 with 15.2 seconds remaining, the Hens quickly brought the ball upcourt and got it to Darling. The junior guard, who netted a game-high 27 points, pulled up in the lane and banked in the shot from straight on.

“I shot a little float shot,” said Darling. “It had some soft touch up there. It happened to hit the glass and go in. That was like the first real game-winner (of his college career). It feels great, especially to get a win like that.”

Rather than Delaware having a letdown, the Hens thought Saturday’s battle was the case of JMU being a pretty talented team. Delaware only beat the Dukes by four in Harrisonburg, Va. on Jan. 9.

“I wouldn’t consider this a letdown,” said Darling. “In any conference game, they’ll all battle to the end. These guys are good. They’ve lost some tough ones. Every conference game (win) is a plus for us.

“I think our group is just growing. We’re resilient. We weren’t going to lose that game, no matter what. I had no second thoughts. We were confident.”

The Hens, who also got 21 points from Kevin Anderson and a double-double from Justyn Mutts (18 points, 14 rebounds), says there’s something to be said for winning a game when their shots aren’t falling.

Delaware was just 6-of-23 from three-point range, with Darling going 4-for-6 in the first half. Instead, the Hens simply started driving to the basket and either scoring or going to the foul line — or sometimes both.

Delaware hit 24-of-31 free throws in the contest with Darling going 9-for-9.

Anderson also came up with a big steal that eventually led to him scoring with 53 seconds remaining to give the Hens a 77-76 advantage. Delaware never trailed again. 

“It shows a lot about our team,” said Anderson. “It always feels good to get a win. We keep winning games like this — four of our last six games that we won were all close games. But we have better teams coming up so we’ve just got to keep this going.”

After leveling off following a school-record 9-0 start to the season, the Hens are starting to put up some interesting stats again.

Saturday’s victory already gives them one more than they had all last season — as well as the most wins they’ve had since 2014. This is also the program’s longest CAA winning streak since 2014 when Delaware started 11-0 in the league.

But now comes the hard part. The Hens play four of their last six regular-season games on the road and still have to face the three teams ahead of them in the CAA standings for a second time.

“I still think there’s a lot of growth in this basketball team,” said Ingelsby. “We can continue to get better. Every game in this league is come down to the wire.

“We’re trying to keep these guys focused and grounded and not getting too caught up in any of the noise on the outside. Let’s stay on the tracks and have fun doing it together.”

Free throws

The Hens have won seven of their last eight meetings with JMU, with four straight wins in Newark. … Anderson has scored 20 or more points in three of the last seven games. … Mutts’ double-double was his eighth of the season. … Delaware plays at Elon on Thursday night before going to William & Mary on Saturday night for a big matchup.