Monday, March 7, 2022

Steals over shots key Furman's semifinal win

Jalen Slawson blocks Ques Glover's potential go-ahead shot with 17 seconds left
during Furman's 71-68 win over Samford Sunday. Photo courtesy of Furman

ASHEVILLE, N.C. - At the Southern Conference Men's Tournament semifinals Sunday night, quantity over quality turned out to be a winning formula for Furman. It wasn't pretty, and the first half was downright ugly, but Furman found a way to rally from a 15-point deficit to defeat Samford, 71-68, and advance to Monday's championship game. The second-seeded Paladins (22-11) will take on top-seeded Chattanooga at 7 p.m. on ESPN.

"A lot of different situations came up and not everything went our way," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "We missed the front end (of a 1-and-1 free throw). We missed a free throw boxout to get the rebound to secure the game. But we just kept responding.

"In life, you don't get to pick what happens to you. You only get to pick your response. That's what got us a win tonight."

A look at the halftime boxscore might leave you wondering how a Furman team that shot 37 percent, allowed Samford to shoot 60.9 percent, and got outrebounded 21-9 was only down by eight at the break. A look at the final boxscore might leave you wondering how Furman won at all.

For the game, Samford shot 55 percent and Furman shot 42.9 percent. Well, it must have been three-pointers? Nope. A Samford team that ranks ninth in the SoCon in shooting threes made 9-of-18, while a Furman team that ranks No. 1 made 9-of-32. Well, how about free throws? Nope. The Bulldogs made 15-of-22 and the Paladins hit 14-of-20.

The difference was quantity. Furman took 16 more shots than Samford did thanks to forcing 20 turnovers and coming up with 15 steals. Conley Garrison led the way with five steals, while Mike Bothwell had three. All three of Bothwell's came early in the second half as he aggressively fueled the comeback coming out of the locker room from halftime.

Read more about Bothwell's night here: https://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/sports/college/furman/2022/03/07/furman-mens-basetball-socon-mike-bothwell-bob-richey/9402673002/

"Getting 16 more shots than they did is the only way you can win a game with that kind of shot-making discrepancy. We had a higher volume because we turned them over," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "When they beat us at their place, we weren't able to turn them over and that was a huge part of the game plan tonight."

Slawson closes it out

While Bothwell got the comeback really going out of halftime, fellow All-SoCon first team player Jalen Slawson finished it off. After playing only 10:49 in the first half with a couple of personal fouls, Slawson played 18:50 in the second half and scored 14 points and grabbed all seven of his rebounds.

"Jalen didn't have the first half he wanted. We challenged him, and boy did he have a second half," Richey said. "He did some unbelievable things, but it was a team effort. We needed it against the hottest team in the league."

After Bothwell fouled out with 2:30 left and the game tied 62-62, Slawson scored each of Furman's next eight points. His biggest play down the stretch may have been the biggest blocked shot of the SoCon Defensive Player of the Year's career. After Slawson missed the front end of a 1-and-1 trip to the foul line with 27 seconds left, Furman was still clinging to a 66-65 lead.

Samford grabbed the rebound and got the ball to All-SoCon first team player Ques Glover. Glover drove to the lane and had his shot blocked by Slawson, who did so with enough grace that he was able to also grab the rebound and draw a foul. An inadvertent elbow from Slawson as he came down with the rebound unfortunately resulted in an injured, bloody nose for Glover that forced him out of the rest of the game.

"I just saw a really elite guard attacking downhill. Ques is really good and he had a great game tonight," Slawson said of the play. "We talked in film about flowing heavy to all their guys, not specifically just him. I just came over to try to make a play and happened to get my hands on the ball."

Slawson made both of those free throws with 16 seconds left and two more with six seconds left to help seal the win. He and Bothwell led Furman with 17 points apiece.

Lean on Hien

It was a bizarre game, but there were many different contributions from Paladins. Tyrese Hughey gave Furman a lift off the bench in the first half grabbing three of those nine Furman rebounds before also committing three fouls. Marcus Foster had a couple of drives for layups when Furman was in need of a bucket. Garrison's energy throughout the wretched first half kept Furman from getting blown out.

After a scoreless first half, Alex Hunter made key scores in the second half including eight consecutive points for the Paladins. He hit back-to-back threes, the second of which finally made it a one-score game, as it cut the lead to 50-49 with 10:17 left.

And then there was Garrett Hien, who went 4-for-4 off the bench including 3-for-3 in the second half. He also made a couple of big plays late that won't show up in the boxscore. With Furman clinging to a 68-67 lead and 8.6 seconds left, Samford set up a full-court defense on the Paladins' possession. It took Garrison a few seconds to find someone on the inbounds pass before the 6-foot-9 Hien provided a big target near midcourt. After jumping to catch the pass, Hien fired another pass to Slawson while he was still in mid-air and Slawson drew the foul.

After Samford missed a second free throw on purpose with 2.4 seconds left, the plan worked as the loose ball hit off Slawson out of bounds. The Bulldogs inbounded the ball to Jermaine Marshall down low. Hien bodied up Marshall with hands extended forcing Marshall to try a wild shot from behind the backboard. Officials blew the whistle and Marshall thought they called a foul on Hien, but it was actually an illegal shot for going over the top of the backboard.

"Sorry to get emotional, but man Garrett's fought through it. He had 17 (points in the early season win) at Louisville, but he hasn't had the easiest of years," Richey said. "His minutes went all the way down, but he's worked himself back up. There's zero percent chance we win that game tonight without him.

"He's such an unbelievable person and teammate. He's just a guy that you constantly pull for because he's always in a good mood. Just the guts he's showed. There's 300 kids that go through his deal and transfer, but he loves Furman and he just kept working."

Furman women fall in SoCon championship

Furman seniors Tierra Hodges and Grace van Rij embrace after checking
out of their final collegiate game Sunday. Photo courtesy of Furman

ASHEVILLE, N.C. - For one half Sunday it appeared that Tierra Hodges' long-awaited hope might be realized. When she arrived at Furman six years ago, it was Hodges' goal to be on the team that gave Jackie Carson her first Southern Conference championship as a coach.

But Hodges' foul trouble early in the third quarter started a small blaze of concern for Furman. And by the end of the quarter, the Paladins had a raging inferno on their hands. For a seven-minute stretch, Mercer went on a 22-0 run to turn a one-point halftime deficit into a comfortable lead. The top-seeded Bears went on to a 73-54 victory in the SoCon Women's Tournament final. It's the fourth women's championship in the last five seasons for Mercer (23-6).

"Hats off to Mercer. They're used to being here and in the third quarter we just got hit with a barrage. It was snowballing fast and there was very little we could do," Carson said. "The toughest thing is there was never a doubt in our mind that we were a championship team, so I never thought we would be in this position right now. ... We just felt it was our time. Everything just seemed aligned. Everything just seemed as it should.

"I have played in the NCAA tournament, coached in NCAA tournaments as an assistant and NITs. I’ve had WNBA players and I wouldn’t trade this group for any of it. They’re pretty special."

Third-seeded Furman entered Sunday's title game with confidence having been the only SoCon school to defeat Mercer this season. The first half was a great battle between two teams who thought they would win and it featured five ties and 11 lead changes.

That 11th lead change was one of the biggest highlights of the day. After Sydney James caused a steal for Furman in the final seconds of the first half, Tate Walters flew down the court. She launched a long three-pointer that hit nothing but net as the horn sounded and Furman took a 25-24 lead into halftime.

Something that proved to be more troublesome than perhaps first thought for Furman happened a little less than two minutes earlier. After Hodges lost control of the ball it appeared the Paladins had a shot clock violation, but instead Hodges was called for her second foul. That sent her to the bench for the first time of the entire tournament.

Mercer led 29-27 with 8:35 left in the third when Hodges got her third foul on a charge. Carson sat the SoCon Player of the Year, but after the Bears pushed the lead to 36-27 at the 7:03 mark, Hodges went back in. It was 38-27 less than two minutes later when Hodges tried to take a charge but was in the restricted area. Her fourth foul sent her to the bench for the remainder of the quarter. Walters also picked up her third foul in the third.

By the time Hodges came back to start the fourth, it was 54-29. Mercer won the third quarter, 30-4, making 11-of-15 field goals, including 3-of-4 threes, and 5-of-5 free throws. Meanwhile, Furman went 1-for-10 in the quarter. The Paladins never got closer than 16 the rest of the way. There were so many issues going wrong for Furman, it was hard to know where to begin to try to fix them.

"I was drinking from the fire hose. A lot of times when things are snowballing, we can press. We couldn't really press because I had to get these kids (in foul trouble) back on the floor. We tried to go small, but that's not a lineup we typically score with," Carson said. "It was just a lot to take in at once. ... I felt like we defended not too much differently than we did in the first half. They just came out and starting hitting shot after shot."

Hodges finished with 11 points and eight rebounds. She caps her brilliant career with 1,658 points - sixth best in school history, and a school record 1,272 rebounds. Her career rebounding total is fourth best in SoCon history.

"This year has been everything. My decision to come back was because of my teammates and Coach Carson," an emotional Hodges said. "We didn't reach my goal that I set when I got here, but that doesn't take away from everything we've been through this year.

"This team is great and it's meant everything to me. It's helped me grow my game and prepare me for the future. I'm just grateful for them."

Walters led Furman (19-12) with 20 points and three assists. Senior Grace van Rij had 12 points, five rebounds, three steals and a blocked shot. Hodges and Walters made the SoCon All-Tournament first team, while van Rij was a second team selection.

As a sophomore, Walters wasn't here for Furman's three-point loss to Mercer in the 2019 championship. She hopes to build off some of the experiences of this season's run to the final though.

"This has been an unbelievable year. With the seniors showing me how to lead and take the punches, this team has just shown so much grit," Walters said. "Of course, you always want a championship, but we really, really wanted this one for our seniors. I know we're going to be here again."

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Balanced Paladins knock off Mercer, advance

Alex Hunter had 13 points, including two on this acrobatic layup, to help lead
Furman to an 80-66 win over Mercer Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

ASHEVILLE, N.C. - The No. 2 seed curse is over.

Five players scored in double figures as second-seeded Furman defeated Mercer, 80-66, Saturday in the quarterfinals of the Southern Conference Men's Basketball Tournament. This season marks the Paladins' fourth as the two seed since 2017, but this is the first time they've reached the semifinals via that route. Furman (21-11) will take on No. 3 seed Samford at approximately 6:30 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU with a trip to Monday's championship game up for grabs.

"I'm proud of this group. They handled the game well. It's great to have the (first round) bye, but if the other team has played sometimes they can get in a good rhythm," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "Our guys did a good job of coming out with the right defensive intensity for the majority of the game.

"These two (Mike Bothwell and Conley Garrison) particularly from the perimeter had active hands. They had 12 of our deflections combined. When we were able to get stops and get out in transition, we were really able to stretch the margin at times."

On Friday, seventh-seeded Mercer crushed Western Carolina in the opening round of the tournament. Sometimes that momentum can carry over to the following day when that winning team from the night before faces a team that hasn't played for a week. On Saturday, Furman didn't give that a chance to happen.

It took just 79 seconds for the Paladins to force Mercer's first timeout of the game. That's how long it took for a Jalen Slawson layup, a Marcus Foster steal, a Mike Bothwell layup and a Conley Garrison three-pointer to stake Furman to a 7-0 lead. The Bears (16-17) never got closer than four the rest of the way.

"I have to give credit to coach. This week in practice, we worked on our starts. We played four-minute games right after we warmed up in practice and said, 'we've got to start right.' " said Bothwell. "It even went to how we got the tip on the jump ball. ... If we didn't win the tip, he started us over.

"We knew our start was critical to set the tone for how we want to play. They were coming off a really good game last night and we all watched. It gives a lot of confidence when you come out and kind of throw the first punch."

The biggest sequence of the game happened late in the first half when the Paladins used a stunning amount of steals to take a commanding lead into halftime. It was a 26-21 game with 6:09 left when Foster made a layup. The next three Mercer possessions ended on steals by Foster, Garrison and Alex Hunter. Those steals led to a Bothwell dunk, a Garrett Hien layup and a Foster layup to push the lead to 34-21 with 4:50 left.

J.P. Pegues and Foster had two more steals the rest of the half, giving Furman five in a six-minute stretch, as the Paladins took a 46-27 lead into the half.

"We had four deflections the first 12 minutes of the game and we talked about it. We finished the last eight minutes (of the first half) with 10 deflections. That's what really got the run going," Richey said. "They have more size than we have. We know that. They even played bigger tonight playing some of those guys together, so we knew our speed had to be a big deal.

"The end of the half was critical. That was a big deal when we played so well in Macon. It was a back-and-forth game and we made a run right before halftime that really gave us a boost going into the locker room. We wanted to do that again tonight."

As has sometimes been the case down the stretch of the season, a Furman opponent shot the lights out for a portion of the second half again Saturday. Mercer made seven of its first eight shots after halftime, but Furman's offense played well enough for the Paladins to still lead by 12 at that point.

The Bears got the lead down to 11 at 62-51 with 9:23 left. That may have made some Furman folks think about last season's collapse as the No. 2 seed when the Paladins blew a 13-point lead with less than six minutes left in an overtime loss to VMI in the quarterfinal. But Hunter answered with a three-pointer and then made a gorgeous twisting layup to push the back lead to 16. Mercer never got closer than 14 the rest of the way.

"Our defense slipped a little bit out of halftime," Richey said. "Our leadership did a great job of just settling down and we had some guys make some plays to finish the game. We had a lot of guys step up."

It didn't take anything special to get past this hump. Furman simply did many of the same things it did in two convincing wins over Mercer in the regular season. For veterans like Bothwell, Slawson and Hunter, it had to be a relieving feeling to move a little past the heartache they've experienced in Asheville in the past.

"I think the players that have been on this team before have definitely matured a lot and have learned a lot of lessons. But what's different is this guy to my left (Garrison). We've been saying all year, having him on the court is just a stabilizer," Bothwell said. "J.P. Pegues hadn't been here yet. We knew he was going to show up.

"We've only had three players on our team that have played in big moments in Asheville. All these other guys are here to make a new mark. They're not thinking about what happened in games before. They're just out here trying to get this job done."

Garrison and Slawson each had 15 points, while Bothwell scored 14. Garrison also had four assists. Hunter had 13 points and three steals, while Pegues finished with 10 points and five rebounds in 21 minutes off the bench.

After shooting 66.7 percent in the first half, Furman only made 9-of-24 field goals (37.5 percent)  in the second. A key to maintaining the healthy lead in the second half was the Paladins hitting 13-of-15 free throws. They made 17-of-19 for the game.

Now its on to a rubber match against Samford. Furman opened SoCon play on Dec. 29 by crushing Samford in Greenville, 81-49. The Bulldogs played without All-SoCon first team member Ques Glover that night and it began a 1-6 start in league play for them. In the rematch in Alabama last week, Glover had 22 points in Samford's 83-75 win. That was part of a stretch where the Bulldogs won nine out of 10 games to help them reach their highest finish ever in the SoCon.

"With our leadership having the lessons that we've learned and pouring those in to the people that haven't been here yet and with their energy and excitement to be on this stage, there's definitely a different feeling," Bothwell said. "There's more peace out there instead of the nervousness. We're not scared to lose, but just excited to go try to win."

Saturday, March 5, 2022

Furman seeks winning formula in Asheville

Jalen Slawson is the first Furman player ever to earn Southern
Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Photo courtesy of Furman

ASHEVILLE, N.C. - March Madness is finally here and as teams shoot their shot for a bid to the NCAA Tournament, there will likely hear talk about young teams and veteran teams over the next couple of weeks. As the second-seeded Furman men get set to face seventh-seeded Mercer in the Southern Conference Tournament quarterfinals Saturday at 6 p.m., coach Bob Richey believes he's fortunate to have a combination of both.

It would be difficult to find a starting backcourt with more experience than the Paladins' duo of Alex Hunter and Conley Garrison. Hunter, a fifth-year senior, was snubbed from the All-SoCon teams despite ranking third in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio and sixth in three-pointers made. Hunter is Furman's all-time leader in three-pointers (310) and third on the school's assist ledger with 451. Garrison, a graduate transfer, surpassed the 2,000-point mark in his collegiate career and has fit like a glove for the Paladins since arriving this season from Division II Drury University. He ranks second in the SoCon in three-point shooting (43.6 percent).

Furman has a pair of All-SoCon first team members in seniors Jalen Slawson and Mike Bothwell, who both appear to be coming back next season. In the regular season, Bothwell averaged 15.5 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists per game, while Slawson slashed 14.5/7.6/3.9. Sophomore Marcus Foster battled through injuries to play limited minutes last season before entering the starting lineup in late November this season. He earned that role through his defense, but has become more of an offensive weapon the last few weeks. All five starters averaged double figures in scoring in SoCon play.

"We've always presented as an old team, but this year six through ten are freshmen or COVID freshmen. I think we have a good mix and that's what I like because that's a key to building a program," Richey said during the Paladins' shootaround at the Harrah's Cherokee Center late Friday night. "You want to be old enough, but you want to have some in the middle and some you're developing. ... We need our bench to be ready to roll this weekend because when we've played at our best this year, they've been huge."

Furman fans need no reminder of what Richey's team is chasing this weekend. It's been 42 years after all. After frustrating opening-round exits each of the last two seasons, Richey has tried to change up routines this season and this week.

In hopes of keeping starters fresher, Richey committed to using the bench more after the Paladins' 71-69 loss at Chattanooga on Jan. 15. The team responded with its best stretch of basketball all year, winning five consecutive games in dominant fashion. The bench contributions have shown in the fact that Furman has had 10 different players score in double figures in a game this season.

After losing three straight following the winning streak, Furman (20-11) closed out the season winning three out of four. In the final week, the Paladins bounced back from an ugly loss at Samford in which the Bulldogs shot 60 percent from the floor by rolling over The Citadel, 94-59, in Charleston last Saturday.

"It was good just to have a nice rhythm like that. Just to get back out there defensively with a high deflection game," Richey said. "Get the game in transition, move the ball and make shots. Just the things we're doing when we're playing well. To have that happen right before the tournament - even with a week in between - you hope that carries over."

In preparing for the tournament this week, Furman arrived in Asheville earlier than usual. They did so to cheer on their classmates as they've attended each of the Furman women's first two games, both wins which put the Paladins in the women's championship game Sunday at noon. That's not the only thing Richey changed.

"I talked to some other coaches about tournament preparation and spent part of my summer thinking about how to try something a little bit different. We had Sunday and Monday off, which we haven't done before. We revved it up a little bit on Tuesday, went hard Wednesday and Thursday and choked it down today," Richey said. "I left it up to the team if they wanted to come on Thursday or Friday, and they all wanted to come on Thursday (for the women's opening game).

"We have a good relationship with our women's team. (Coach) Jackie (Carson) and I are good friends. We moved our practice to 11 o'clock this morning to be able to come over here and see them beat Wofford. I've got a lot of respect for them. I've really enjoy watching them play and I'm pulling like heck for them to get this thing done on Sunday."

In addition to being named a consensus All-SoCon first team player by the league's coaches and media, Slawson was also named the SoCon Defensive Player of the Year. His 7.6 rebounding average ranks fourth in the SoCon, while the 6-foot-7 power forward leads the league in steals (1.8 per game) and is third in blocked shots (1.7 per game). Many of those steals and blocks have been dynamic plays that have led to dynamic scoring opportunities on the other end for Furman.

"In a league with this much depth, it's really good to have two guys on the first team. Jalen is the first Furman player to ever win defensive player of the year," Richey said. "His growth has been incredible. I think he's going to be a key this weekend. His demeanor, presence and poise all are critical components because our team feeds off his energy.

"There's a lot of heavy stuff going on in the world right now. We get to come out here and dribble a ball and throw it in the net. We're going to try to embrace that and have as much fun with it as we can and not make this a pressure packed situation. But also with the understanding that pressure is just an opportunity to excel."

Friday, March 4, 2022

Paladins top Wofford to reach SoCon title game

Tierra Hodges had 20 points and 12 rebounds in Furman's 64-59 win over Wofford
in the SoCon Women's Tournament semifinals Friday. Photo courtesy of SoCon

A day after the Furman women's basketball team did something it hadn't done all season, it accomplished another season first on Friday. After being swept in the regular season by Wofford for the first time ever, the Paladins picked a heck of a time to avenge those losses. Tierra Hodges had 20 points, including four decisive ones in the last 70 seconds, to lead third-seeded Furman to a 64-59 win over the second-seeded Terriers in the semifinals of the Southern Conference Tournament in Asheville.

The Paladins (19-11) advance to face top-seeded Mercer for the SoCon championship at noon Sunday. Furman will be going for its first SoCon title since the 2000 season, which was head coach Jackie Carson's final year of her Hall of Fame playing career.

"I couldn't be prouder. This is the grittiest, hardest-working team," Carson said in the postgame press conference. "We've never in the past been able to just fight through adversity and we experienced about the maximum amount of adversity that you can experience in a game.

"That's a really good team (Wofford). They're senior heavy and Coach (Jimmy) Garrity does a tremendous job organizing, but we wanted this matchup. They're the only team that swept us and we circled it."

Less that 24 hours earlier, the Paladins fought back from a 14-point deficit to win a game after losing at the half for the first time this season. That turned into a back-and-forth battle with Chattanooga that Furman pulled out in overtime. Friday's game was another thriller with nine lead changes and six ties.

Unlike Thursday, neither team sniffed a lead of 14 on Friday. The biggest lead of the game came when Tate Walters' jumper pushed Furman's lead to 18-13 early in the second quarter. Wofford (17-13) quickly erased that with a 9-0 run that gave the Terriers their biggest lead of the game at 22-18.

Furman matched that five-point lead a couple of times in the fourth quarter on layups by Hodges and the Paladins seemed to have a relative sense of control leading 55-52 with three minutes to play. That's when a truly bizarre sequence of events shifted momentum to Wofford.

It started when the Terriers' Reagan Rapert had her shot blocked by Sydney James out of bounds. There seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary, but an official called a technical on James. Replay showed that James said something, but the nature of it all seemed to be equivalent to getting pulled over for doing 56 in a 55 mph zone. Rapert made 1-of-2 free throws and then Lilly Hatton had a putback to tie the game.

Rapert then made a deflection and in the loose ball scramble for the ball, Walters slightly clipped Rapert's right hip. Walters was called for a foul and after a few seconds of begging for an intentional foul by the Wofford bench, the wish was granted with no video review. Again, it may have technically been correct but it's a call that's rarely seen in that situation. Rapert made both free throws and, in a span of 20 seconds, the Terriers turned a three-point deficit into a 57-55 lead with 2:38 left.

Furman didn't flinch. After playing tough defense on Rapert down low, Walters grabbed a rebound off a missed layup. Walters then found Hodges for a layup to tie the game at 57-57 with 2:10 remaining. Hodges broke the tie a minute later with a pair of free throws. On Wofford's ensuing possession, Walters stole the ball from Rapert. Hodges tried a tough short jumper that took three bounces off the rim and backboard before falling through to give Furman a 61-57 lead with 31 seconds left. Hodges grabbed a rebound off a missed Wofford three with 22 seconds left to help seal the win.

"They never hung their head. They never stopped believing. We just knew we had to go get it," Carson said. "We never worried about things we can't control."

In addition to her game-high 20 points, Hodges also had 12 rebounds helping Furman win the rebounding battle, 47-30. After collecting 20 offensive rebounds Thursday, the Paladins had 17 Friday which led to a 19-9 advantage on second chance points. Hodges has 40 points and 32 rebounds in the tournament thus far and the SoCon Player of the Year has yet to take a break, playing all 95 minutes for the Paladins.

"We knew it was going to be back and forth. ... We never fold," Hodges said. "As a senior and a leader they count on me and put it on me to make those big shots and I've prepared for this moment."

James had 15 points and eight rebounds off the bench for Furman, while Walters finished with 12 points, eight assists and six rebounds.

The Paladins now get a full day to prepare for the rubber game of their season series with Mercer. Furman handed the Bears (22-6) their lone league loss this season with a 69-66 victory in Macon on Jan. 20. Mercer returned the favor with a 71-64 win in Greenville on Feb. 19.

While the Paladins have been in two knock down, drag out fights the first two days of the tournament, that hasn't been the case for the Bears. Mercer has won its two games by 39 and 30 points, respectively, so the day off could prove vital for Furman.

"We're going to rest a lot and I'll let them enjoy this one for a couple of hours," Carson said. "We're going to watch a lot of film and study. We shot ourselves in the foot the last time we played Mercer, so we're going to correct those things."

Furman women rally, survive and advance

Tate Walters had a career-high 26 points in Furman's 70-63 overtime win over Chattanooga
at the SoCon Women's Tournament Thursday. Photo courtesy of Furman/Jeremy Fleming

Going into the Southern Conference women's basketball tournament, Furman coach Jackie Carson thought if her team "could get past the first one," they could be a dangerous team this week in Asheville, N.C. Even though the third-seeded Paladins were facing a sixth-seeded Chattanooga team that it had won four consecutive games against, including a 21-point win at Chattanooga exactly one week earlier, it's almost as if she knew part of what was coming Thursday.

As Carson feared, the nerves and the hoopla that surround every tournament did seem to rattle her team early on. But then the Paladins did something they had not done all year. After going 0-8 in games in which it trailed at the half in the regular season, Furman rallied from a six-point halftime deficit and pulled out a 70-63 overtime win. The Paladins (18-11) survive and advance to face No. 2 seed Wofford in Friday's semifinals at approximately 1:15 p.m.

"Its crazy, because every week at the end of every practice we practice a five-minute overtime. We knew this tournament was going to be a dogfight. We didn’t want it so much to be the first game, but we knew Chattanooga was going to be ready for us," Carson said in the postgame press conference. "I knew we were going to come out jittery. We always start jittery and finally we cooled down and took it one possession at a time. When you have great leaders like these two to my left (Tierra Hodges and Tate Walters), it makes my job a little easier."

Thursday's game was delayed for about 10 minutes due to a malfunction with the game and shot clocks on each goal. Both teams had to look up to the scoreboards high above each end zone to check the shot clock. Once the game started, Furman must have felt like the scoreboard was also malfunctioning. Chattanooga, which had not scored more than 50 points during Furman's four-game winning streak in the series, raced out to an 18-4 lead less than six minutes into the game.

The Mocs (7-23) led 28-14 with less than five minutes left in the first half when Hodges knocked down a 3-pointer. That ignited a 10-0 Furman run in which the SoCon Player of the Year accounted for the first eight points of.

Furman trailed 30-24 at the break, but the momentum didn't carry over immediately in the second half. Chattanooga pushed its lead back to double digits at 36-26 before Greyson Boone hit her only three-pointer. That started a 10-2 Furman run capped by Sydney James' lone three-pointer. The Paladins still trailed by five entering the fourth quarter.

Furman finally came all the way back to take its first lead at 48-47 on a pair of Grace van Rij free throws when she drew a foul after grabbing an offensive rebound with 7:38 left. The Mocs didn't go away though. There were two ties and two lead changes over the next five minutes and it appeared the Paladins were on the ropes trailing 60-56 with just over a minute left.

That's when Walters simply took over.

Walters made a beautiful pass from just beyond midcourt to van Rij for a layup to cut the lead to 60-58 with 1:04 left. After Chattanooga got an offensive rebound on its ensuing possession, Walters made a deflection that led to a loose ball tie up. The arrow gave the ball to Furman with 25 seconds remaining. With 14 seconds left, Walters hit a turnaround jumper from just inside the foul stripe to tie the game. The Mocs ensuing possession ended on a Walters steal with five seconds left to help send the game to overtime.

Walters scored the first points of overtime when she drained her fifth three-pointer and Furman never relinquished the lead. Hodges' long jumper with 51.6 seconds left was a backbreaker for Chattanooga as it pushed the lead to 66-62. Walters went 4-for-4 from the foul line the rest of the way to seal the win and give her a career-high 26 points. As a team, Furman made 16-of-18 free throws for the game.

On a night when she started 0-for-6 from the field, Hodges finished with 20 points on 6-of-16 shooting from the floor. The all-time leading rebounder in school history also pulled down a career-high 20 boards. Half of those rebounds came on offense as Furman collected 20 offensive rebounds as a team.

"I knew I had to step up because my shot wasn’t falling," Hodges said. "I knew that meant rebounding and offensive rebounding, and I said to myself, 'let that be what you provide to the team,' and it worked out in the end."

The 20 offensive rebounds helped Furman have a 19-9 advantage in second-chance points, while 21 Chattanooga turnovers led to a 24-9 Paladins edge in points off those.

"They know rebounding is my love language," Carson said. "It’s won us some games before and it won us the game tonight."

In addition to her 26 points, Walters had four rebounds and a team-high four assists. She and Hodges, who both played all 45 minutes, also had two steals apiece. The only other Paladin in double figures was van Rij, who finished with 14 points and six rebounds in her 41 minutes of action.

In the postgame celebration, Carson pointed to the stands behind the Furman bench. Two nights before its first game in Asheville, the Furman men's team along with head coach Bob Richey and his staff were seated there to cheer on the women.

"I'm just proud of our team, proud of their grit and fight. We train really hard, and we’ll be ready to go again against Wofford tomorrow," Carson said. "We have 17 players and 1-17 were incredible. Our crowd was incredible with the men’s team was here supporting us. It was just a great Furman University women’s basketball effort tonight."

Thursday, March 3, 2022

SoCon's top player Hodges eyes bigger prize

After earning Southern Conference Player of the Year honors Tuesday, Furman's Tierra
Hodges hopes to cap her career with a SoCon championship. Photo courtesy of Furman

Tierra Hodges became the first Furman women's basketball player in 19 years to be named Southern Conference Player of the Year Tuesday. But that's not what Hodges came back for this season. After one big victory this week, she's looking for three more in Asheville as the third-seeded Paladins (17-11, 10-4) pursue the SoCon championship.

It's the sixth time a Furman woman has earned the league's top honor, including Natalie Cleckley (1991), Rushia Brown (1992), Deshara Shealey (2003) and Hodges' coach, Jackie Smith Carson (1998 and 1999). After Carson won her two, she capped her career with a SoCon Tournament championship in 2000.

When Carson's playing career ended. she was the second-leading scorer and rebounder in school history. Hodges is now the school's all-time leader in rebounds with 1,232 and she's hoping to finish her career just how her coach did. That 2000 SoCon title was the last time the Paladins cut down the nets.

"After we found out about the Player of the Year, Coach Carson just told me to 'stay calm.' She knows sometimes that award makes you feel like you have to go out there and do it all. She told me, 'you've already proved what you can do, so now it's time to just have fun.' " Hodges said. "We've been through ups and downs this season. We've had bad losses and great wins and I think it's all prepared us for this moment."

Hodges made 18 starts as a freshman in the 2017-18 season before tearing her ACL and missing all of the following season. With the "COVID year" of extra year of eligibility available, Hodges came back to Furman for a sixth season. It was not an easy process though. After going back and forth several times, Hodges said she ultimately went with her gut feeling.

"Last season was probably the most cohesive I've felt with the team. I really enjoyed playing with them and I knew the potential that we had," Hodges said. "When I first came here way back in my freshman year, my goal was to be a part of Coach Carson's first championship team as a coach. I didn't want to leave and always wonder, 'what if I stayed?' Deep down, I had to come back just to know what the outcome would be."

Hodges was the consensus choice as the SoCon's top player by the league's media and coaches. She leads the SoCon in scoring (18 points per game), rebounding (11.9 per game) and free throw shooting (83.2 percent). She ranks seventh nationally in rebounding this season and her career total is fourth-highest in SoCon history. Hodges is the sixth leading scorer in Furman history with 1,607 points.

"When she decided to come back, her focus was getting a championship. My focus was getting her Player of the Year and a championship because I know how hard she works and where she started and where she is now as a player," Carson said. "When a kid believes in your program enough to come back for a sixth year when that's not necessarily what everyone's telling them to do, you owe it to them to give them everything you possibly can. ... As she went, we went and that's the mark of a really good leader."

That leadership was proven in 2020. Like so many others when COVID-19 first hit, Hodges was quarantined at home. She used that time to expand her game and did so for what she felt the team needed. After never attempting a three-pointer her first three years at Furman, Hodges made 28 of them last season. She hit 19 more this year.

Broadening her horizons beyond the paint has done nothing to hurt her rebounding totals. Hodges averaged 10.4 rebounds per game last year, which was the same average she posted in the 2019-20 season. Her efforts on the glass are all the more remarkable by the fact that the 5-foot-9 Hodges is never really the biggest player on the court.

"The year before last we had lost three of our best three-point shooters, so I went to coach and said 'I want to shoot threes next year and help fill that gap that we're losing.' She gave me a regimen of what to do to work at it," Hodges said. "I have a little court in my yard and every day I was out there working on my form, the height of my shot and moving further and further back. I also watched a lot of film and took notes.

"Rebounding is just a mentality I have. I know I'm an undersized four. I've been that way all my life. Like Coach Carson says, 'it's all will and want.' ... See the ball and go get it has always been natural for me."

While Hodges was a first team All-SoCon selection for the third consecutive season, teammates Tate Walters and Grace van Rij made the second team and Niveya Henley earned a spot on the All-Freshman team. Walters, a sophomore, averages 12.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, and leads the SoCon with 105 assists. van Rij averages 10 points and 4.9 rebounds and leads the league in field goal percentage (50.7).

Henley helped the Paladins finish strong as she started nine of the final 10 games. The freshman from Seattle averages 4.1 points and 2.6 rebounds per game. Her accolade marks the 11th consecutive season that Furman has had a player make the five-person All-Freshman team under Carson.

Recapping the regular season

Furman opened the season 5-1 before going on a Thanksgiving road trip that was one of the highlights of the year and of Carson's career. The Paladins traveled to Berkeley, California to compete in Cal's Raising the BAR (Basketball, Activism and Representation) Invitational. Each of the four teams in that tournament - Furman, Cal, Mississippi and San Diego State - are led by black female head coaches.

On the trip, Carson got to met a fellow two-time SoCon Player of the Year in Golden State superstar Stephen Curry. While visiting the Golden State practice facility, the Paladins also spent time with Warriors head coach Steve Kerr.

On the court, Furman trailed a then undefeated Cal team by 25 points with 2:47 left in the third quarter before cutting the lead to 76-72 with 2:05 left in the fourth. The Paladins ultimately fell to the Pac-12 foe, 82-73, in a game in which Hodges had 25 points and seven rebounds. The next day, Furman defeated San Diego State 71-62 powered by a game-high 24 points by Walters.

"Part of the thing I learned from my coach was just having the full student-athlete experience of traveling to different places. The mommy coach in me loves taking our girls somewhere they've never been before," Carson said. "Our girls had no idea about the whole thing with Steph Curry. ... The highlight of the trip was having an in-depth conversation with him and talking about the SoCon." 

After flying back home, the Paladins stumbled a bit dropping five of their next six games. Furman then went 2-2 to open SoCon play before pulling off a 69-66 win at Mercer. That turned out to be the only league loss for the regular season champion Bears and it started a five-game winning streak for the Paladins.

Furman posted road wins at Chattanooga and ETSU last week to close out the regular season and secure third place in the league.

"I think I learned earlier this season to just stop talking about the end goal and focus on the process. Their chemistry also went up," Carson said of her team's success down the stretch. "They genuinely play for one another and enjoy being around one another. When you have 17 females on a team, that's pretty important."

On to Asheville

Furman will take on sixth-seeded Chattanooga in the opening round of the women's tournament Thursday at 5:45 p.m. The Paladins have won each of the last four meetings against the Mocs and not allowed more than 50 points in any of those games. In last year's opening round, Furman defeated Chattanooga 58-40. It was the fewest points the Paladins have ever allowed the Mocs to score in the series and the fewest they've ever allowed in a SoCon Tournament game.

Furman or Chattanooga will face the winner of the game between second-seeded Wofford and seventh-seeded ETSU in Friday's semifinals. The Terriers (16-12, 11-3) were the only team the Paladins didn't defeat in SoCon play as Wofford won at Furman for the first time ever and swept the regular season series for the first time. Walters didn't play in the Paladins' 74-69 home loss to the Terriers. Wofford's only other loss in league play besides Mercer came at ETSU last Thursday.

The SoCon women's championship final is set for Sunday at noon.

After winning just one road game the entire season last year, Furman went 5-2 on the road in SoCon play this season. Knowing it can win away from home and knowing it can compete with anyone in the league gives the Paladins confidence entering this postseason.

"We just know we've got to play our basketball in our style and do what we're supposed to do. I think that's what makes us a little bit dangerous. You never know what you're going to get in the second game, but I just want to get past the first one because I think the nerves and the hoopla can kind of get to you in that one," Carson said. "We can't get to the end goal worrying about anybody other than Chattanooga though."