Friday, February 15, 2019

Paladins down UNCG for fifth straight win

Jordan Lyons scored 22 points as Furman handed UNCG its second SoCon
loss this season with a 67-57 win Thursday. Photo courtesy of Furman
There's been one obvious factor during the Furman men's basketball team current win streak - tenacious defense. On Thursday night against UNCG, that was again the case and it couldn't have come against a more symbolic opponent.

In the first showdown between these two members of the Southern Conference's "big four" this season Jan. 12, Furman shot 52.9 percent from the floor, 55.6 percent (10-of-18) on 3-pointers, and 88.2 percent from the foul line. All that offense was wasted though as the Paladins left Greensboro with a 10-point loss.

On Thursday, Furman shot 43.1 percent from the floor and hit just 7-of-23 (30.4 percent) of its 3-pointers. This time around though, it was the Paladins who sent the Spartans home with a 10-point loss. Furman held UNCG to 35.5 percent shooting from the floor and limited the Spartans to their third-lowest scoring output this season in a 67-57 win.

"I'm so proud of this group. ... We had to go on the road to these top of the league teams three times (in the first half of the SoCon schedule). ... I told our guys, 'this thing's going to balance out. You've just got to stay with it and keep getting better.' We just had to keep improving and man, have we," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "Just watching that game tonight, what a fight. Both teams played their hearts out. It was a war for every ball and every pass. That's a championship level basketball game right there.
"We were fortunate enough to make the plays down the stretch. ... We had a clean finish those last few minutes after taking the lead."

The win extended Furman's win streak to five games, while snapping UNCG's eight-game winning streak. The victory also marked the Paladins' first win over the Spartans in their last five meetings.
Furman (21-5, 10-4) remains tied for third-place in the SoCon with ETSU (20-7, 10-4), while second-place UNCG (22-4, 11-2) is now two losses back of Wofford (22-4, 14-0) in the league standings. The SoCon is currently the only conference in the country with four 20-win teams.

Just as they did against Citadel's Matt Frierson, Mercer's Ross Cummings, Western Carolina's Matt Halvorsen and ETSU's Patrick Good during the win streak, the Paladins controlled the opposition's best shooter again. UNCG's Francis Alonso, who entered averaging 17.2 points per game and  hitting 38.2 percent of his 3-pointers, was held to 10 points Thursday. He hit 2-of-7 shots from beyond the arc and committed six turnovers.

As a team, UNCG hit six 3-pointers Thursday. While that's the most allowed by Furman during its win streak, the Spartans only made 26.1 percent of its 3-point tries. In the first meeting, UNCG sank 11-of-24 3-pointers.

"We know that defense is our ticket. I think we did a great job of following that defensive gameplan tonight," said Jordan Lyons, who scored 22 points. "We did a great job of fighting through the highs and lows and sticking together through everything.
"Alex Hunter did an unbelievable job of chasing Alonso everywhere tonight. But one thing we've understood that it's never just a one-on-one matchup (against an opponent's best shooter). It's a whole five, team mentality. Everybody's bought in to the task at hand when it comes to guarding these prolific shooters."

In the first half, Furman only had three players with any points and only three with any rebounds, but clung to a 27-25 lead. It was still a tight game in the second half before the Spartans went on an 8-0 run to take a 42-36 lead with 11:58 to play.

After a Furman timeout, Matt Rafferty answered UNCG's run with a personal 7-0 run of his own to put the Paladins back in front. That was the first of five consecutive lead changes. The fifth one came on Rafferty's layup with 7:07 left to give Furman a 47-46 lead.

"We quit giving the ball to them. We ignited their run with turnovers and they did a great job pressuring us," Richey said. "There were also four, five or six (offensive) trips where Matt didn't touch it. So in the timeout, it was, 'take care of the basketball and make sure our big fella gets it.' ... I think we did that from that point forward and played a much cleaner game."

At that point, Lyons, Rafferty and Clay Mounce were still the only Paladins in the scoring column. As it turns out, the scoring of fellow starters Noah Gurley and Alex Hunter simply iced the cake. After Hunter got a steal on UNCG's ensuing possession, Gurley became the fourth Paladin to score on a layup with 6:49 left.

On Furman's next possession, the Paladins - who got beat up on the boards in the first half - got three offensive rebounds before Rafferty's layup. Just 29 seconds later, Lyons drilled a 3-pointer and Furman's lead was suddenly eight with five minutes to play.

Gurley hit a 3-pointer to put the Paladins up by nine with 4:10 left, then hit a layup a minute later to put them up by nine again. The win was sealed when Hunter became the fifth Paladin to score. As Furman ran off 29 seconds of the shot clock, Hunter soared to the basket for a layup with 1:06 left to make it 63-55.

"They don't do much, quote-unquote, on the stat sheet for 33 minutes, but they stay engaged enough to make some big-time, high-level plays down the stretch," Richey said. "You've got to stay mentally engaged and that was the key for this group tonight."

Rafferty recorded his 12th double-double this season with a game-high 26 points and 10 rebounds, while adding five steals. Mounce had eight points, seven rebounds and four blocks. Gurley had five blocks and Hunter had four steals. While Furman's reserves were outscored 3-0, Jalen Slawson made the most of his five minutes off the bench with three rebounds and a steal.

"I think this group's physicality and toughness has been questioned by a couple of people," Richey said. "You don't hold teams that are that good offensively under 60 without being physical and tough."

Isaiah Miller, who went off for 25 points in the first meeting, led UNCG with 16 points and four steals Thursday.

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