(Eds: Updates with quotes, background. With AP Photos.)
By HANK KURZ Jr.
AP Sports Writer
The James Madison team heading to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 19 years looks as if it made a late-season trade for a star player to rescue a squad that stumbled through much of the season.
Truth is, A.J. Davis has been there all along, but now, he gets it, and it showed as he carried the Dukes (20-14) to their first Colonial Athletic Association tournament championship since 1994.
"It's otherworldly," coach Matt Brady said of the 25-year-old guard's transformation after nearly two seasons that left Brady feeling exasperated. "I don't know what happened. It's almost like the spirit of somebody greater came down and said `You're going to do what's asked of you.' It's been remarkable."
On his way to winning most outstanding player honors in the CAA tournament, Davis had 20 points, five rebounds and four steals in the quarterfinals against William & Mary, 16 points and four more steals in the semifinals against Delaware and 26 points and seven rebounds in the final against Northeastern.
In his last 10 games, he's averaging 20.5 points on better than 58 percent shooting. He's also averaging 2.3 steals and nearly 5 rebounds while assuming a greater leadership role on the team.
Pretty good numbers for a guy Brady called a "really nice, neat kid" who has never been in trouble, but has nonetheless been "a handful to coach." It got so frustrating for Brady that he suspended Davis for a game against Winthrop early this season, and said he even considered kicking him off the team.
Davis, who transferred to James Madison from Wyoming after the 2010 season, isn't fond of delving too deeply into what came before he and Brady finally got on the same page and his game took off.
"There were just some things going in internal that needed to be handled for me to gain focus so we could get to this moment," he said after collecting his MOP trophy in the CAA tournament.
"Coach took it on his hands to do what he needed to do, and I had to bite the bullet."
In Harrisonburg, Davis joined cousin Devon Moore, the Dukes' point guard, on the team. Moore isn't sure what caused Davis to finally come around, but smiles widely because he did.
"Now they're finally seeing eye to eye, and look what happens," Moore said.
The light bulb moment, Brady said, came during a timeout against William & Mary on Feb. 6.
"I remember the play like it was yesterday," Brady said, recalling how a defensive mistake by Davis left a Tribe player wide open for what the Dukes had game-planned defensively to stop - 3-pointers.
"I came back and I just looked him in the eyes - and I've had this conversation with him during timeouts many times, and I was exasperated - and I said, `A.J., you can't make that mistake against this team,' and he looked at me and for the first time that I've ever talked to him on the court, whether it be practice, game or anything, I knew that he felt like he let me down and he let his team down.
"He's tried with his whole heart never to let our team down since that game."
Davis, whose 23 second-half points that day lifted the Dukes to an 81-71 victory, had just four in a loss at Drexel in the following game, and hasn't scored under 16 - his season average is 12 - since.
"It wasn't about me, it was about the team," the native of Columbus, Ohio, said, trying again to sum up the gist of his long-running feud with Brady. "It's just been a blessing, the good and the bad."
The kind, Brady said, that will stick with him a long time.
"I've never been around a person in any facet of their life, to just decide, and really it seemed like in one day, `I'm going to change all my mental approach and I'm going to do everything that's asked of me and I'm going to be a completely different person on the court,"' he said, comparing the transformation to "somebody who went to prison for a day and came out and said, `I'm never going back there."'
Davis, meantime, is excited about looking forward.
"We're not done here," he said of the Dukes' tournament hopes. "We're trying to make some noise."
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s like it made a late-season trade