Saturday, January 20, 2018

Steady Paladins knock off Samford

Furman freshman Alex Hunter had nine points and played a crucial role
defensively in the Paladins' 78-67 win over Samford Saturday.
No reigning Southern Conference Player of the Year proved to be no problem for Furman Saturday. After dislocating his right little finger Thursday, leading scorer Devin Sibley didn't dress out for the Paladins' game against Samford Saturday. Furman was unfazed though and recorded a business-like 78-67 win before 2,211 fans at Timmons Arena.

Daniel Fowler scored 16 points, Matt Rafferty and Andrew Brown had 15 apiece and John Davis scored 11 as the Paladins (14-6, 5-2) snapped a two-game losing skid. It was the first different starting five this season for Furman as Jordan Lyons replaced Sibley in the lineup. The steady Paladins maintained anywhere from a three- to 12-point lead for seemingly the entire game.

"I thought the key to the game was when they cut (the lead) to three and called timeout. Our huddle was very calm. There was no panic. We ripped off five straight points and got the game back to eight and basically kept it there," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "We handled their pressure late, didn't turn it over and got to the free throw line. Everybody should be happy because we were 17-of-20 there tonight.
"We missed Devin today. I love Devin and he's an unbelievable player, but I was excited about the possibility of seeing guys in some extended roles that were ready to step up. I thought they did today."

No one stepped up more than freshman point guard Alex Hunter. It was fitting that on a day the Paladins had a season-low five turnovers, Hunter posted career highs in scoring (9) and minutes (21). One turnover Saturday gave Hunter eight this season in 261 minutes of action.

"I just tried to come in and bring a spark like I usually try to do," Hunter said. "That's my role."

One thing that won't show up in Hunter's stat line was the he did containing Samford's Justin Coleman at a key time in the second half. Coleman, a University of Alabama transfer, was terrific Saturday with a game-high 20 points and eight assists. Of the Bulldogs' 24 made field goals, Coleman had a hand in 16 of them. That included Samford's first six made field goals of the second half.

However, after Coleman's jumper cut Furman's lead to 52-46 with 11:57 left, he didn't have another basket or assist for the next eight minutes. By the time Coleman scored again with 3:58 left, Furman had built an 11-point advantage.

"The play of Alex Hunter was just tremendous," Richey said. "We were trying to figure out how to keep Coleman out of the paint. We kept changing the matchup and when we put Alex on him, all of a sudden it calmed down. It wasn't perfect, but for a true freshman to go out there and have to deal with an Alabama transfer, that's commendable."

Rafferty added, "It started in the summer for (Hunter). He's the hardest-working freshman I've ever seen. He was building coaches' confidence in him since the day he got here."

The Bulldogs (7-13, 3-4), who are still without key injured players Christian Cunningham and Wyatt Walker, had one other double figure scorer in Alex Thompson (17). Samford leading scorer Demetrius Denzel-Dyson, who entered Saturday averaging 14.6 points per game and making 42.9 percent of his 3-pointers, had three points on 0-of-5 shooting from the floor.

Last season, Furman consistently beat Samford's full-court press in sweeping the regular season series. When the team's met in the SoCon Tournament semifinals in Asheville, the Bulldogs didn't press at all and upset the Paladins. On Saturday, Samford only pressed when they fell behind by a sizable margin.

That and other factors led to Furman scoring no fast-break points. That's unusual for the Paladins, who've turned many deflections and steals this season into transition points. To still be able to score 78 points and win by double digits without those fast-break buckets has to be encouraging moving forward.

"We'll have to talk to the statistician about that," Richey joked. "We have a delayed break as well. We've been playing a little too fast lately in some ways. The ball has been coming up the court so fast that we haven't been able to stretch the court with our shooters quick enough. ... So we've intentionally tried to slow the break down a little bit to let the court get stretched and then be able to attack."

In addition to his scoring, Fowler had a game-high eight rebounds as Furman had a 34-23 edge on the glass. Meanwhile, Rafferty seemingly spent as much time at the top of the key finding guards down low as he did in the post. Rafferty finished with seven assists, six rebounds, two steals and no turnovers.

"Their bigs were kind of playing in the paint and off me, so there wasn't much ball pressure," Rafferty said. "That allowed to see the court well and guys were doing a great job of cutting."

Furman returns to action Wednesday for a key SoCon game at UNC Greensboro. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.

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