Thursday, January 3, 2019

Paladins get back to defense - and winning

Matt Rafferty had 19 points, 10 rebounds and surpassed the 1,000-point mark
in Furman's 71-58 win over Mercer Thursday. Photo courtesy of Furman
The Furman men's basketball team got back on track Thursday thanks to perhaps the biggest pillar of the program's success the past few seasons - defense. After allowing LSU to shoot 55.4 percent and ETSU 60 percent from the floor in its first losses of the season, Furman held Mercer to 36.2 percent shooting in a 71-58 win at Timmons Arena.

It's the lowest scoring output this season for the Bears, who finished 4-of-19 on 3-pointers after hitting just one of their first 15 attempts. Mercer leading scorer Ross Cummings, who entered Thursday averaging 14.6 points per game and making 39.4 percent on his 3-pointers, had 10 points and was 1-of-5 from beyond the arc.

"It all started tonight on the defensive end. We got some stops and got out in transition a little bit," Furman senior Matt Rafferty said. "They got a few offensive rebounds that kind of kept them in the game in the first half. We got off to a bigger lead in the second half and tried to handle their pressure. A few things didn't go our way there, but we bounced back and ended the game strong.
"Cummings is a great player and Alex Hunter and Tre Clark did a great job defending him."

On the same night that Rafferty became the 44th player in Furman history to score 1,000 points in his career, he finished with 19 points, 10 rebounds and three steals. It's his seventh double-double this season.

"I'm really proud of Matt. One thousand points, especially considering his injuries, it's incredible," Richey said. "But what I told the team, that's (1,000 points) very minimal compared to everything that he's done for this program.
"I love the fact that he's scored 1,000 points, but the way that he's impacted this program, you can't even start to put words on it. You can't even come close."

Richey was proud of the way his team responded to a lineup change that saw freshman Noah Gurley return to the starting lineup in place of senior Andrew Brown. The size that Gurley provides help for Matt Rafferty and Clay Mounce inside, while you'd be hard-pressed to find a better sharpshooter off the bench than Brown.

All those factors were on display in the first half of what was the typical grind of a game against Mercer. After a tough two-game stretch, Mounce got a quick boost of confidence with a pair of blocks, three rebounds and a putback in the first three-and-a-half minutes of Thursday's game. Brown came in at the 15:51 mark and two minutes later knocked down his first 3-point attempt to give Furman a 14-6 lead.

After Mike Bothwell's 3-pointer snapped a 19-19 tie with 5:10 left in first half, Gurley had a 98-second run of a layup, a blocked shot and two 3-pointers to give Furman a 30-21 lead with 2:11. It was only slightly spoiled by Gurley receiving a technical foul on the second 3-pointer, which was made in front of the Mercer bench. Rafferty hit a pair of free throws in the final second of the first half to stake the Paladins to a 35-26 lead at the half.

"We asked some guys tonight to do some things for the betterment of the program. ... That was all to make sure we could get position on length and size where we wanted it," Richey said. "We had to get Noah out there a little bit more and get Clay at the three (position) more. ... I thought the team handled that in a really mature way tonight and it was really good to see."

An unsung hero for Furman (13-2, 2-1 Southern Conference) Thursday was Clark. Mercer (5-9, 0-2) got as close as it would get in the second half, trailing 40-34 when Clark came up with a posterizing dunk. Clark's second impressive dunk of the night started a 16-3 run over the next seven-plus minutes as the Bears made no field goals from the 15:13 mark to the 6:36 mark of the second half. A pair of Rafferty free throws gave Furman its biggest lead of the night at 56-37 with 6:54 left. Five different Paladins scored in that 16-3 run.

"(Mercer) is usually a slower tempo game and to get the margin to 19 and the way we did it systematically. ... It wasn't like we were on fire (offensively)," Richey said. "I just felt that we were much more connected on defense tonight."

Thanks to deflections on defense and hitting three of its last four 3-pointers, Mercer chipped the lead down to seven at 65-58 with 2:25 left. After Furman ran down the shot clock on its ensuing possession, Hunter answered with a big jumper from the foul line. The Paladins hit 4-of-6 free throws over the final 1:21 to seal the win.

Richey said it was a fitting end to the night for Hunter. The sophomore point guard started the game with a bandage over one eye and one knee in a brace, and then suffered a nasty fall when he slipped on the court during the game.

"The game honors toughness. .... When he got to that spot, I knew he was going to make it," Richey said. "It would've been easy (for Hunter) to take (Sunday) off after you just played all those minutes the day before in Johnson City. But Sunday morning at 10 o'clock, he was here in the gym.
"You can't underestimate what that does to a person, a player and a program. I trust everything that he does and I continue to ask him to do more."

Gurley and Jordan Lyons scored 11 points apiece, while Hunter finished with 10. Mounce had a game-high 11 rebounds.

After surviving the grind of Mercer, the Paladins will try to conquer the frenetic pace of Citadel at home Saturday at 4 p.m.

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