|Daniel Fowler is mobbed by teammates after hitting the game-winning shot|
against Louisiana-Monroe on March 15, 2016. Photo courtesy of Furman.
March 15, 2016 will always be one of the most memorable dates ever for Furman athletics. On that night, Daniel Fowler's off-balance putback as he was falling down beat the final buzzer and lifted the men's basketball team to a 58-57 win over Louisiana-Monroe in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. That was the Paladins' first postseason victory in 40 years.
About an hour later across campus at Latham Stadium, Carter Grote hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to lift Furman to a 9-7 walkoff win over former Southern Conference rival College of Charleston. The next morning, ESPN showed highlights of both game-winning plays. The next image on the screen was a live shot of Fowler and Grote sitting next to each other being interviewed by ESPN anchors.
It's ironic that the stars aligned for that particular duo to have the game-winning plays the night before. In a school full of brilliant students, Furman could have no finer representatives on national television than Fowler and Grote. Grote, who graduated in 2016, was the heart and soul of the baseball team, and that's precisely what Fowler is for the basketball team.
I called Fowler "the glue" here for two reasons. He holds everything together for Furman and has the ability to provide whatever is needed - scoring, passing or rebounding - in a given situation. Then there's defense. No player in the SoCon sticks to their opponent better than Fowler. After a full game of being hounded defensively by Fowler, many an opponent's leading scorer hasn't sniffed their per-game average.
"In the recruiting process, his defensive baseline was pretty high for a high school player," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "That's why he's the defender he is now."
Fowler understands how great defense can often lead to easy offense, and Furman has scored a bunch of points that way this season. In 18 SoCon games, the Paladins have had an advantage in points off turnovers 14 times.
"Defense wins championships. I've always taken pride in playing defense and I really love to do it," Fowler said. "Being paired on the other team's best scorer is a challenge I like to accept, just to see if I can stop them from doing what they want to do.
"I know it may make me less efficient on offense, but if I can prevent a team's best scorer from going off, I'm fine with that."
There's also the "it" factor. There were plenty of memorable plays in Furman's 79-76 win at ETSU to close out the regular season Sunday. So many that it's easy to overlook a huge one like Fowler rebounding his own miss with 15 seconds left after Furman had ran out the shot clock. That led to ETSU being forced to foul and John Davis III helping seal the win at the foul line.
For Richey, the biggest moments in that game weren't plays at all though. He pointed to two occasions where ETSU had made a run and Fowler called for his teammates to huddle each time. The Paladins came out of both with a positive response.
Fowler's high school defensive proficiency led to early collegiate playing time. As a freshman in 2014-15, he was the on Paladin to start all 33 games. He's rarely left the starting lineup since. Out of 131 career games, Fowler has made a school-record 125 starts.
While many may look at the run to the SoCon Tournament final Furman made in 2015 as the turning point that began the positive transformation of the program, Fowler has a more big picture view. For him, it goes back to that season's opener when the Paladins were hammered at home by College of Charleston, 75-40.
"Stephen (Croone) was out that game, so the young guys were playing. Early on, it really just helped us humble ourselves and understand that nothing would be given to us at this level," Fowler said. "We learned that we were going to have to work really hard and it was going to take a whole team effort for us to be successful.
"Going through the growing pains early on and just figuring things out as we continued to play. I think those were just the stepping stones ... to reaching our end goal."
There's been plenty of big moments and games among all those starts for Fowler. One came on Nov. 14, 2016 when Fowler had a career-high 23 points, a career-high eight assists, seven rebounds, two steals and no turnovers in Furman's 84-74 win at UAB. That snapped one of the longest runs in the nation as the Blazers entered on a 26-game home winning streak.
Fowler earned All-SoCon third team honors this season after posting career-highs in scoring (11.3 points per game), field goal percentage (46.6), 3-point percentage (40.9), free throw percentage (81.8), assist-to-turnover ratio (2.3 per game) and steals (1.4 per game) and a career-low in turnovers (1.4 per game).
"On the court, he can really just do it all. His passing ability, vision and decision-making are outstanding," Richey said. "That's another thing from Sunday (at ETSU). You go against that defense and have five assists and one turnover? That's incredible."
After signing Geoff Beans and Devin Sibley early on in the 2013-14 season, Furman had a couple of more scholarships open up as the season went along. That's when the recruitment of Fowler and Davis began.
When the Paladins played at Samford that season, Richey went separately to make a pit stop in Acworth, Georgia to see Fowler's Allatoona High team - that went 29-2 that season - play. The next morning at breakfast in Samford, then Furman head coach Niko Medved asked Richey about Fowler.
"I said, 'we've got to go after this kid. He could be special.' He was 6-4, athletic, a great kid from a great family - all the things we were looking for," Richey said. "In addition to defense, we loved his versatility. We just really connected with him as a person and his parents, Lynette and Roy, were phenomenal."
"It was Martin Luther King Day and Niko and I went together to watch Daniel play. On the two-hour drive back, he and I just made a collective decision to go all out for Daniel and see what happens," Richey said. "We offered him that night expecting him to get more offers, but they all went after the other kid. By the time Johnson committed to Charleston and the other schools all circled back (to Fowler), it was too late."
Fowler said that strong connection with Medved and Richey from the start of his recruitment meant his commitment never flinched.
"They showed trust and just really believed in me. With Furman being my first offer, they showed loyalty and I felt loyal to them," Fowler said. "This is the place that I knew I needed to be."
That loyalty didn't waiver during a rough freshman season in which the Paladins went 11-22. That almost perfect run in Asheville made the lasting thought of that year much better than it could've been. While they are focused on the first task at hand - Western Carolina at 8:30 p.m. Saturday - this weekend as they try to get back to the final, those memories will always stay for the seniors.
"All the pain and hurt from being right there and losing that game as close as it was, it will always be in the back of your mind," Fowler said. "It does kind of give you a blueprint for what it takes to get there.
"It's nice to reflect on how we've gotten better over the years, but now we're very excited for this last (tournament) go-round. We're looking forward to getting the weekend started."
Paying it forward
In doing this series, I've become well aware that while the seniors still have plenty of business to tend to this season, they are fully invested in how the program carries on in the future. Fowler's proven that in a unique way. When recruits came visiting during the fall, he requested to host them.
"There's no senior in the country that does that. He's not even going to be here (next season)," Richey said. "But at the recruiting meal, Daniel's sitting there with (2018 signee) Michael Bothwell and he's hosting him. Ninety-nine percent of other seniors in the country would rather go hang out with their girlfriend or friends. They don't have to recruit. Daniel's always been like that."
Fowler's influence has reached his younger teammates and younger fans. A popular request these days from Richey's five-year old son is to have Fowler come spend the night at their house some day.
"There's nothing I can tell you negatively about Daniel, except I wish that he would shoot the dang ball more," Richey said with a smile. "From the person he is, to what he values, to his character and how unselfish he is, he's one of the best teammates I've ever been around.
"His motives are so pure and he wants to see everybody have success. There's no selfish bone in the guy's body and that piece has been so critical to what we've been about here."