Sunday, March 4, 2018

Paladins cruise past Western Carolina again

Matt Rafferty had 14 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 steals in just 21
minutes Saturday in Furman's 97-73 win. Photo courtesy of Furman.
ASHEVILLE, N.C. - A year after being upset in the Southern Conference Tournament quarterfinals by an opponent it had swept in the regular season, Furman emphatically made sure that wouldn't happen again Saturday. Five Paladins scored in double figures as Furman whipped Western Carolina for the third time this season with a 97-73 win at the U.S. Cellular Center.

The victory runs the Paladins winning streak to seven and ties the school record for wins in a season set last year. Most importantly, third-seeded Furman (23-9) advances to face No. 2 seed ETSU at 6:30 p.m. in Sunday's second semifinal.

"The guys came out with the right mentality tonight. ... We came out with a lot of confidence offensively. They switched some things up defensively, but we kept cutting and kept the ball moving," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "They cut the lead down a little bit there in the second half and I thought we had a great response and finished our business."

In the regular season meetings, Furman led 13-0 in Greenville and 12-2 in Cullowhee before going on to blowout wins. That wasn't the case Saturday as the Catamounts led 13-12 six minutes in. However, Furman went on a 14-0 run over a 5:03 stretch to take a commanding 26-13 lead with 9:15 left in the first half.

Back-to-back 3-pointers by Jordan Lyons and freshman Alex Hunter gave Furman its biggest lead of the first half at 42-21 and Daniel Fowler's 3-pointer with 11 seconds left staked the Paladins to a 50-31 halftime lead. The Paladins shot 64.3 percent from the floor in the first half and hit 7-of-12 (58.3 percent) 3-pointers. Furman outscored Western Carolina 152-85 in the first half this season.

"They were switching on defense that threw off our game plan a little at first, but then we adjusted," said Fowler, who led the Paladins with 18 points. "We started making the right plays, then we started making shots."

Furman maintained the comfortable lead throughout the second half. The Catamounts (13-19) got as close as 13 in the second half, but John Davis III answered with back-to-back buckets and was fouled on the second one. His free throw pushed the lead to 69-51 with 10:06 left. The Paladins stretched the lead to as many as 29 down the stretch.

"We were able to exploit their switches a little bit. Getting the ball inside, opened up some easy kicks for threes in the first half," said Matt Rafferty, who had 14 points, nine rebounds, five assists and a career-high five steals in only 21 minutes. "We scored on more cuts in the second half."

In addition to Fowler (18) and Rafferty (14), Lyons (15), Davis (12) and Hunter (10) also scored in double figures. Davis also had five assists, while Hunter's showing was a career high. Eleven out of 12 Furman players who saw action scored. Ironically, the only one who didn't was Andrew Brown, who scored 22 against WCU last Friday. No Paladin played more than 24 minutes thanks to the lopsided win.

Furman finished at 55.9 percent shooting from the floor, including 38.1 percent on 3-pointers. The Paladins also converted 23-of-28 free throws (82.1 percent).

"It was a great atmosphere, and I enjoyed every moment of just getting out here," Hunter said of his first SoCon Tournament. "I couldn't ask for a better night."

Marcus Thomas scored a game-high 19 points to lead the sixth-seeded Catamounts.

While Mercer made an excellent run at the end of the regular season to nab the No. 4 seed, Sunday's semifinals are set to feature what many considered to be the best four teams in the SoCon for most of the season. Prior to ETSU-Furman, UNCG takes on Wofford at 6 p.m.

"We've got four teams left and everybody's going to have their best punch. The team that responds the most is going to be able to get this done," Richey said. "We've just got to be us (Sunday). We can't try to do anything more or anything less, just go out and play our game."

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