Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Links to NIT, football stories

Just wanted to drop a quick note here at the Furman Sports Report to provide links for a couple of Furman stories I've written for the Spartanburg Herald this week.

First, an NIT preview ahead of tonight's opening round game against Wichita State: https://www.goupstate.com/news/20190318/snubbed-furman-excited-about-nit-no-3-seed

Next, is a feature story on did on Byrnes High senior Jalen Miller, who's one of three incoming freshman football players who enrolled early and participated in spring practice for the Paladins: https://www.goupstate.com/news/20190318/byrnes-jalen-miller-gets-head-start-on-furman-career

I'll be covering tonight's basketball game also for the Herald. I'll post the link here, but I should have a follow-up piece on here tomorrow.

Thanks as always to Tommy's Country Ham House for sponsoring the FSR, and thanks to all of you for reading. This athletic program is an absolute joy to cover and I'm so appreciative of the support to help me do it!

Friday, March 15, 2019

Furman baseball looks to build momentum

Furman freshman Rob Hughes (2-0, 1 save; 0.00 ERA) is scheduled to make
his first collegiate start Saturday at Charleston. Photo courtesy of Furman
Weather has wreaked havoc on the schedules of college baseball teams this season, especially those in the Southeast. Furman is no exception. Of the 14 games the Paladins have played, only six of them went on as originally scheduled.

Among the misadventures this year were a series with LaSalle getting completely replaced by a series against Gardner-Webb, traveling to Wake Forest for a Friday game that was rained out then traveling back to Wake Forest two days later for a doubleheader that was originally supposed to be a single game against the Demon Deacons at Fluor Field. That was one of three games at the home of the Greenville Drive that Furman has had wiped out.

"It's been the strangest season. You never know when your playing or how much water you're going to have to squeegee off the field," Furman coach Brett Harker said. "It's been very hard to get in any kind of groove."

Along with the weather, the Paladins (5-9) have dealt with injuries to Jabari Richards, Deon Sanders and Dax Roper. Weather and injuries are things all teams have to deal with, but it certainly hasn't helped this young Furman team develop consistency.

Winning helps and Furman is coming off its first consecutive victories of the season. The first of those two wins came Monday in improbable fashion. The Paladins trailed 10-8 going into the ninth, then were down to their last out still trailing by one. David Webel hit a grounder to short and beat the throw to first allowing M.J. Sasapan to come home with the tying run. An inning later, John Michael Boswell cranked a walk-off home run.

John Michael Bertrand continued to be solid in his role as Furman's midweek starter as the Paladins won at USC Upstate, 7-4, on Wednesday. Two bright spots from that victory for Furman were the confidence boosts it undoubtedly gave reliever Jordan Beatson and outfielder David Webel. In his first game in the leadoff spot this year, Webel went 2-for-4 with a pair of doubles and two runs scored. Beatson gave up one run on three hits over the final three innings for his first save.

"We started four freshman on the road and won a game. I don't know the last time Furman has done something like that," Harker said following Wednesday's win. "We're taking baby steps to get better.
Of course, I'd love us firing on cylinders from day one. That was the game plan, but obviously we weren't there yet. We're getting better and we're getting healthier though.
"We can't grow and get better unless we're playing. That's why we've gone to such extents to make sure we get games in."

So far this young season, the Paladins appear to have more power at the plate and on the mound. While not the end-all, be-all for offense or pitching, respectively, home runs and strikeouts certainly don't hurt either category. After hitting 40 homers in 52 games last season - including a stretch of 82 2/3 consecutive innings without one, Furman has 13 long balls in 14 games this year. After last year's pitching staff posted 328 strikeouts in 450 innings, Paladin pitchers have 110 in 123 innings this year.

Freshman Rob Hughes (2-0, 1 save, 0.00 ERA) has led the way for Furman pitching this season. He's allowed one unearned run on four hits in 15 innings out of the bullpen, to go along with five walks and 22 strikeouts. Those performances have earned Hughes his first collegiate start, set for Saturday at Charleston.

"He's thrived every time we've given him the ball in what was a great challenge for him. He's been a starter his whole life," Harker said. "I was very handcuffed early on, because I felt like Rob was the one who could handle that pressure on the back end (of games). Now that we have other guys like Beatson and Eric Taylor stepping up, it opens up this chance."

Boswell (.358/3/10; .566 slugging) and Logan Taplett (.286/3/10; .595 slugging) have led Furman's power surge, along with Spartanburg Methodist transfer Sterling Turmon. The injury to Richards opened a door for Turmon, and he has blasted through. Turmon, who played high school ball at St. Joseph's then Eastside, is hitting .344 with three doubles, a homer and five RBIs.

"We really weren't sure what we were going to do when Jabari Richards went down. Sterling got the nod and has taken advantage of it," Harker said. "What's been impressive about him is if he has a bad night, he seems to bounce back really well the next day."

After winning three of its last four, the Paladins will look to keep building momentum this weekend at College of Charleston. It's the final series before Southern Conference play begins next weekend at Samford. It will be a special road trip for Harker, who played on some incredible Charleston teams and holds the school record for career saves (29).

"It's a little weird being in the third base dugout and there's a completely different coaching staff. Heck, it's a different logo that the one I played with. So there's a lot of changes there, but obviously that place means a great deal to me," Harker said. "I have so many memories there. ... I'd love to go down there and play our best baseball for sure."


Sunday, March 10, 2019

Paladins fall to UNCG in SoCon semifinal

Matt Rafferty had 17 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and three blocks
in Furman's 66-62 loss to UNCG Sunday. Photo courtesy of Furman
ASHEVILLE, N.C. - The number seven brought no good luck to the Furman basketball team Sunday night in the Southern Conference Tournament semifinals. The third-seeded Paladins saw a seven-point lead turn into a seven-point deficit over a seven-minute stretch late in the second half as second-seeded UNCG rallied for a 66-62 win.

The Spartans (28-5) advance to play top-seeded Wofford in Monday night's championship game at 7 p.m. Meanwhile, the Paladins (25-7) will have to wait and see where their next game will be. Furman entered Sunday ranked No. 41 in the NET rankings that will be used to seed the NCAA Tournament. At worst, it seems the Paladins will be NIT bound.

"Credit UNC Greensboro. They put up a great fight, especially down the stretch," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "I thought both teams competed really hard and played tremendous defense both ways. They swung and we swung, and they got the last one in and unfortunately the clock ran out.
"The ultimate goal for all of us is to somehow play in the NCAA Tournament. In the world of mid-major and low-major athletics, you've got to win this (conference tournament). ... That's just how it's always been, but this year is unique. Whether it's us or Greensboro, I don't know. But if you're going to sit here and tell me this is a one-bid league, that's nuts."

Following Saturday night's win over Mercer in the quarterfinals, the Paladins had a major concern regarding the health of star Matt Rafferty. Rafferty injured his right thumb after falling to the court late and didn't return. The thumb wasn't broken, but Rafferty did play with a splint on it Sunday. The splint had to be altered when excommunicated ACC official official Karl Hess deemed that the original soft-wrap wasn't legal to play with. This meeting took place about eight minutes before tip-off Sunday and Rafferty had to have it re-wrapped. 

Rafferty fought through the pain to lead the Paladins with 17 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, three blocks and a steal. While Rafferty will never be one looking for excuses, the SoCon's leader in field goal percentage was just 6-of-15 from the floor Sunday and a few of those made buckets came on left-handed layups.

"I don't think (the splint) affected my game too much. I missed some shots that I should've made, but all you can do is go out and play as hard as you can," Rafferty said. "I was going to play no matter what."

One night after compiling a season-high 25 assists in a win over Mercer, the Paladins had one in the first half Sunday to go along with seven turnovers. Yet Furman trailed only 26-24 at the break after limiting UNCG to 36.7 percent shooting.

Things got more Furman-like on offense after halftime as the Paladins opened the second half on a 7-0 run. Furman's lead stretched to nine on four different occasions, the last coming on a pair of free throws by Jordan Lyons that made it 45-36 with 12 minutes left. The Paladins took a 52-45 lead after a steal by Andrew Brown led to a layup by Lyons with 8:43 left.

Things went downhill quickly for Furman from there. UNCG went on a 20-6 run over the next 7:04 as Isaiah Miller's dunk gave the Spartans a 65-58 lead with 1:21 left. After Rafferty hit a pair of free throws, Alex Hunter came up with a steal with 31 seconds left. Trailing 65-60, Furman's possession took way too long and ended on Clay Mounce's putback with 11 seconds left. Miller hit 1-of-2 free throws with nine seconds left to wrap up the win.

"That's a broken floor play. You get the steal and you'd love for guys to run wide where you can either attack the rim or hit somebody that's running wide for a three," Richey said. "Unfortunately, the ball got bent to the sideline more than you want right there. If you pause right there to try to run a play, that's going to take too long. You've got to try to attack in the open court and keep the ball in the middle of the floor and unfortunately we didn't."

Lyons was the only other Paladin in double figures with 15 points. Brown and Hunter had nine and eights points, respectively, while Mike Bothwell added seven.

Francis Alonso had a game-high 19 points to lead UNCG. While he only had four points, James Dickey was also a force for the Spartans as he pulled down 15 rebounds, including eight offensive. UNCG had a 39-28 edge on the boards, including 16 offensive rebounds. Somehow, Furman had an 8-1 advantage in second-chance points.

Furman women drop heartbreaker in final

Taylor Petty had a season-high 22 points in Furman's 66-63 loss to Mercer
in the SoCon women's championship Sunday. Photo courtesy of Furman
ASHEVILLE, N.C. - The Furman women's basketball team threw everything it had at Mercer Sunday afternoon, but the Southern Conference's biggest dragon could not be slayed. The Paladins couldn't get three potential game-tying shots to fall in the final seconds as the Bears held on for a 66-63 win in the Southern Conference Tournament championship.

It's the 34th consecutive win over SoCon competition for Mercer (25-7), which hasn't lost to a league foe since Chattanooga in the 2017 championship game. The season will continue for Furman (19-13), which earned an automatic bid to the Women's NIT.

"This is a hard one," Furman coach Jackie Carson said. "I'm just so unbelievably proud of this team, their fight and resiliency. A lot of people counted us out, but we have 15 players, coaches and staff that never did."

Of those 34 wins for the Bears, not many could've been more hard earned than Sunday's classic of a final. The teams swapped the lead 10 times and had two ties, but unfortunately for Furman, not three. After hitting a 3-pointer early in the first quarter, Paladin leading scorer Le'Jzae Davidson couldn't get another to fall. After missing one with 20 seconds left to play, Furman was forced to foul with 15 seconds left.

Mercer's Amanda Thompson missed both free throws and Furman's Tierra Hodges grabbed the second miss and called timeout. After Davidson's 3-point attempt was partially blocked by Thompson with five seconds left, there was a scramble for the ball. Milica Manojlovic came out with it and fired to an open Davidson in the corner. Her shot looked on target as the final horn sounded, but it rimmed off no good and the Bears erupted in celebration.

"I thought every single one of them was going to go in because I had no doubt that we were going to win this game," Carson said. "The last one looked like it was online and Le'Jzae is used to hitting that shot over and over again. It just didn't fall. ... She had a tough day, but she gave us a chance."

Half of those 10 lead changes came in the first quarter, which ended with a Taylor Petty 3-pointer that gave Furman a 17-14 lead. KeKe Calloway powered the Bears back in front as she scored 15 of her game-high 30 points in the second quarter to help Mercer take a 35-31 lead into halftime.

After a sluggish opening two minutes of the second half, Carson called timeout. The Paladins responded, outscoring the Bears 16-7 to carry a 47-44 lead into the fourth.

Hodges' putback gave Furman its biggest lead at 52-46 with 8:47 left. After Hodges' jumper with 8:03 left gave the Paladins a 54-49 lead, they didn't hit another field goal for more than six minutes. A Hodges jumper with 1:27 left cut Mercer's lead to 62-60. The Bears' Shannon Titus answered with a jumper with 1:05 left before Petty hit three free throws with 48 seconds left to slice the lead to one. Mercer's Rachel Selph powered her way in for a layup with 29 seconds left for the final score of the game.

"Their kids are used to rising to the occasion at the end of a game. ... That's a credit to (Mercer coach) Susie (Gardner) and what they've built. ... They've got five seniors and are just unbelievably experienced," Carson said. "We couldn't get Titus off the boards. I thought that was a big key."

The rebounding battle was even at 36, but Mercer controlled it in the second half. Furman had a 16-6 advantage on the boards early in the second quarter. The Paladins had just eight turnovers, but Mercer had only six. The Bears also had 10 blocks and five steals.

Petty hit 5-of-8 3-pointers and finished with a season-high 22 points to lead Furman. The former Dorman High standout, who sat out last season after transferring from Presbyterian, made the All-SoCon Tournament first team along with Hodges. Celena Taborn and Davidson represented the Paladins on the All-Tournament second team. Taborn had 15 points Sunday, while Hodges scored 12 and Davidson had nine.

"It's not too hard to fit into this program. As the year went on, I just started to find my groove," Petty said. "Coach keeps yelling at me to take more shots, so I guess I finally did today."

Calloway, who set the Furman opponents' single-game record for 3-pointers when she hit 12-of-18 last season at Timmons Arena, was the Tournament's most outstanding player. Titus, who had 29 points in Mercer's win over Wofford in the semifinals, was held scoreless for the first three quarters Sunday but finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Selph had nine points and six blocks, while Thompson finished with eight points, eight rebounds and four steals for the Bears.

While there's still more basketball to be played this season, Furman will look to build off overcoming injuries to finish second in the league and reaching its first final since 2000. The Paladins will return everyone except lone senior, Kaitlyn Duncan, next season.

"It's been a long time since we've finished second, so that was a great accomplishment for us," Taborn said. "Getting to the championship for the first time since 2000 was great too. We just have to finish next time."

Paladins pull away from Mercer at SoCon

Jordan Lyons hit seven 3-pointers and had 25 points in Furman's 85-74 win over
Mercer in the SoCon Tournament quarterfinals. Photo courtesy of Furman
ASHEVILLE, N.C. - The semifinals that Southern Conference followers have looked forward to all season are finally here. After going 47-1 against the rest of the league during the regular season, the top four teams went 4-0 in Saturday's quarterfinals of the SoCon Tournament.

Not that it was easy. After top-seeded Wofford whipped VMI, 99-72, to open play Saturday, No. 4 seed ETSU held off Chattanooga, 68-64. Saturday's evening session started with No. 2 seed UNCG rallying from a 13-point deficit to defeat Samford, 77-70, before third-seeded Furman withstood a gritty Mercer effort and pulled away in the second half for an 85-74 win.

"Great effort by our guys, especially in the second half. ... I thought we came out of the locker room in the second half and got back to what we do," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "Jordan (Lyons) shot the ball really well and brought a lot of energy and spirit. We had a couple of guys step up off the bench - Andrew Brown was phenomenal and played with a lot of edge and physicality. Tre Clark was a big sparkplug."

Richey preached this week that nothing that happened in the season really matters in Asheville and he was right. Mercer shot 50.9 percent from the floor, becoming the first team to shoot at least 50 percent against the Paladins' No. 1-ranked SoCon defense since UNCG on Jan. 12. Furman (25-6) countered with an outstanding shooting night of its own. The Paladins hit 15-of-38 (39.5 percent) threes, 15-of-22 (68.2 percent) twos, and tallied a season-high 25 assists.

"It's March. They've got March Madness logos around here for a reason," Richey said. "Everybody had new life today. They're going to play with spirit and free. We got to experience that a little bit in 2015 when we were the 10th seed. ... Mercer played with a lot of energy, played with multiple defenses and did a lot of different things.
"Yes, there's pressure to go out there and win three games but the more you can stay in the present and just play the possession, the better we are."

While thrilled to advance, the postgame excitement was tempered due to the uncertainty of an hand injury suffered by Matt Rafferty late in the game. With a little over four minutes to play, Rafferty took a nasty spill to the floor with the Paladins on offense. It wasn't the best sign when Furman's do-everything warrior was slow to get up, but he was able to make it to his feet in time to haul in a baseball pass from Alex Hunter after the Bears had a quick miss on the other end.

Rafferty converted the layup to give Furman its biggest lead at 78-63 with 3:56 to play and Mercer called timeout. Rafferty never returned to the game and wasn't available for the postgame press conference.

"We don't know yet (about Rafferty). He's getting evaluated, which is why he's not here right now," Richey said. "He fell on his hand. He's one of the toughest human beings I've ever been around. I'd expect him to play tomorrow night."

Furman had a 21-12 lead and no turnovers over the first nine minutes of play, but that changed quickly. The Paladins had six turnovers over the next six minutes. The last of those turned into a made jumper by Ethan Stair and with 4:05 left in the half Mercer had something it had not had all season - a lead over Furman. The Paladins answered with an 8-1 run highlighted by back-to-back 3-pointers by Jordan Lyons and took a 39-36 lead into halftime.

There were eight lead changes over the first five minutes of the second half, but the last one was a Clay Mounce 3-pointer with 15:18 left that put Furman ahead for good. After Jaylan Stowe's layup with 14:19 left cut Furman's lead to 51-49, the Bears didn't have another field goal for nearly five minutes. The Paladins went on a 14-2 run during that span to take command. Lyons hit a pair of 3-pointers in that run, while Brown and Clark also had key buckets during it.

"Basketball is a game of runs. The good thing about this team, throughout the whole year, is we've done pretty well with battling through other teams' runs and staying together through the highs and lows of the game," Lyons said. "We just believe in each other and that's why we're able to turn things around."

Lyons hit 7-of-13 3-pointers and finished with a game-high 25 points to lead Furman. In addition to 14 points for the noted 3-point threat off the bench, Brown also grabbed eight rebounds, had four assists and no turnovers. Rafferty had 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Noah Gurley was the other Paladin in double figures as he had 10 points in just 16 minutes before fouling out with 8:20 left.

Hunter, Mounce and Clark each scored eight points, with six of Clark's coming on three thunderous dunks. Hunter added seven assists and three steals. Seven Paladins had at least two assists and six had at least one steal.

"I just felt like I needed to bring some energy. We had a couple of lulls in the first half and the beginning of the second half," Brown said. "We weren't playing as well as we could be, so I was just trying to come in and be a spark, make hustle plays and do everything I could to help us win."

Stowe led the Bears (11-20) with 16 points. While Furman's defense wasn't quite as lethal as it has been down the stretch, Lyons and others still made things tough for Mercer sharpshooter Ross Cummings. Cummings, a second team All-SoCon selection who ranked fourth in the league with an average of 17.6 points per game this season, hit 100-of-248 (40.3 percent) 3-pointers in the regular season. But in 3-point tries against the Paladins this year, Cummings was 1-for-5 in Greenville, 3-for-10 in Macon and 1-for-5 in Asheville Saturday night.

Furman moves on to face UNCG at approximately 6:30 p.m., following Wofford-ETSU in the other semifinal at 4. The Paladins and Spartans split the regular season series, with each posting a 10-point win on their home floor.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Furman women advance to SoCon title game

Tierra Hodges had 14 points and 13 rebounds to help Furman beat Chattanooga
73-67 Friday in the SoCon Tournament semifinals. Photo courtesy of Furman
On her 21st birthday, Milica Manojlovic actually delivered Furman a present Friday at the Southern Conference Tournament. Manojlovic's 3-pointer with 2:36 left gave the Furman women a 64-63 lead and started a 12-0 run as the second-seeded Paladins went on to a 73-67 win over Chattanooga in the semifinals.

The victory advances Furman (19-12) into Sunday's championship game at noon against top-seeded Mercer, which defeated Wofford 69-51 in Friday's other semifinal. The title game appearance is Furman's first since 2000. Paladin coach Jackie Carson was a star on that 2000 team, which was also the last Furman one to reach the NCAA Tournament.

"I'm just proud of this team, the grit they've shown - the last two games in particular," Carson said in the postgame press conference. "We've had a lot of ups and downs and I think a lot of people counted us out, but we never stopped believing.
"This team is special. I think a lot of people are seeing that. Hopefully, we can continue this on Sunday."

Furman got off to a blazing start Friday to take early command. The Paladins shot 70.6 percent from the floor in the first quarter, including 4-of-6 on 3-pointers, to take a 29-17 lead. Le'Jzae Davidson scored half of her game-high 18 points in the opening quarter.

Chattanooga (14-17) began chipping away at the lead over the next three quarters before Abbey Cornelius' three-point play tied the game 61-61 with 4:31 left. Less than a minute later, another layup by Cornelius gave the Mocs their first lead since a 1-0 advantage 33 seconds in.

After Manojlovic's 3-pointer, the Paladins were unstoppable over the next two minutes. On Furman's next possession, Tierra Hodges had a putback and was fouled. She made the layup to push the advantage to four. After a blocked shot and rebound by Hodges, Manojlovic hit a pair of free throws to make it 69-63 with 50 seconds left. Kaitlyn Duncan closed out the Paladins' scoring with four consecutive free throws.

Furman went 19-of-20 at the foul line for the game, including 15-for-15 in the second half. Hodges powered the Paladins to a 44-32 rebounding advantage, and finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds in 22 minutes off the bench. Celina Taborn had 13 points, seven rebounds and two blocks, while Manojlovic finished with 13 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals. Taylor Petty gave Furman five double figure scorers as she tallied 11 points and three assists.

"They (Furman coaches) constantly say in practice, 'every rebound is yours,' and they instill that in our heads," Hodges said. "So when I play, I know every rebound is mine and I just go get it."

Now the Paladins have a day to rest before facing a Mercer (24-7) team that has reached the championship game for the fourth year in a row. It's a Bears squad that hasn't lost to a SoCon opponent since March 5, 2017 when they fell 61-59 to Chattanooga in the final.

In the regular season meetings this year, Mercer won 75-60 in Greenville and 66-62 in Macon, Ga. In that game at Mercer on Feb. 28, the Paladins fell behind 22-5 in the second quarter before storming all the way back to tie the game twice in the final minutes before falling.

"It should be pretty fun I think. That's a team with five seniors and little ol' Furman with one senior is going to go up strong against them," Carson said. "Mercer is really good at doing what they want to do. We're excited to face them."

Paladins look to end 39-year NCAA drought

Andrew Brown and the rest of the Paladins are shooting for Furman's
first SoCon Tournament title since 1980. Photo courtesy of Furman
Any avid college basketball viewer tuning in to the plethora of conference tournament games over the next 10 days is bound to hear an announcer mention that the last time so-and-so made the NCAA Tournament, "none of its players were even born yet."

They probably won't hear, "its coaches weren't even born yet," but that's nearly the case for Furman coach Bob Richey and his staff. Only assistant Jimmie Williams was alive when the Paladins last made the NCAA field. And as a three-week old on March 6, 1980, he may have very well been napping through all of Furman's first round loss to Tennessee that year.

In a season of "firsts" for Furman, it hopes to add first Southern Conference Tournament championship in 39 years to the list. That quest begins in the SoCon quarterfinals Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. in Asheville when the third-seeded Paladins go for their eighth consecutive win against No. 6 seed Mercer.

While Furman (24-6, 13-5) posted 13- and 11-point wins over Mercer (11-19, 6-12) in the regular season, Richey knows none of those prior wins in the series will matter come tip-off of Saturday's last quarterfinal.

"We will have our hands full. Everybody's got new life. ... You're not going to go win a championship on Saturday night," Richey said. "You've just got to go play your best, stick with your formula and find freedom in that. Those are the teams that do well this time of year.
"Inside all of the noise and pressure, can you find freedom? The way you find freedom is by getting closer to playing to your identity and just trusting that that's enough."

As part of the "big four" that helped the SoCon receive national acclaim this season, Furman may be more prepared than ever before for the pressures and hype of a postseason conference tournament. The Paladins helped start that national buzz way back in a four-game, nine-day stretch in November.

Clay Mounce's dunk in the final seconds lifted Furman to a 62-60 win at 2018 Final Four participant Loyola in Chicago on Nov. 9. That replay was seen all over ESPN. Four days later, Furman blew a 14-point lead against Gardner-Webb, only to pull out an 88-86 win in overtime. That marked the Paladins' first overtime win in eight years.

There wasn't an eight-year wait for the next overtime win. Two days later, Jordan Lyons became the first Paladin to score at least 54 points in a game in 63 years as he hit an NCAA record-tying 15 3-pointers in a win over North Greenville. Two days later, Furman stunned reigning NCAA champion and No. 8-ranked Villanova with a 76-68 overtime win. It was the Paladins' first win over a top eight team since a victory over No. 4 North Carolina in 1979.

While every game is different, there's always some connection. The attention Lyons' received from his 54-point performance two days earlier put plenty of Villanova's attention on him. While Lyons scored 17 against the Wildcats, that attention freed up plenty of other Paladins to knock down big shots.

After posting its first double-overtime win in 27 years with a 90-88 decision over Western Carolina two weeks later, Furman entered the top 25 poll for the first time ever. They became the first SoCon team to be ranked since Stephen Curry's Davidson squad in December of 2008. The Paladins went on to record the best start in school history at 12-0.

During the rare low moments this season, Furman has learned from them and responded in a big way. After a stunning home loss to Samford, the Paladins played perhaps their best basketball all season in a five-game winning streak. They won each game by double figures, including a 30-point win over ETSU and 10-point win over UNCG. After dropping what may have been the most highly anticipated game in Timmons Arena history to Wofford, Furman went on the road for the final two games and won both convincingly.

This team began learning how to respond from losses as soon as last season ended. If there ever was a team that seemed destined to end Furman's NCAA drought it was last year's squad that was led by four seniors who same so close to ending it as freshmen three years earlier. Those four created the foundation for the incredible transformation of the basketball program, but it ended in a lopsided loss to ETSU in the SoCon semifinals.

"It hurt really bad for all of us, but especially those four seniors. ... To see them hurt that way it definitely fired us up to try to go out there and do something for them (this) year," Furman senior Andrew Brown said. "We got off to a really hot start, but every season is a roller coaster. The key is you can't get too low or too high.
"I think we needed some of those wake-up calls like Samford at home just to refocus on get back to how we need to play basketball to be successful."

That successful brand of Furman basketball is highlighted by sharing the ball offensively, staying connected and getting deflections. Those things helped Furman rank No. 1 in the SoCon in field goal defense (41.4 percent), 3-point field goal defense (31.6 percent), blocked shots (4.2 per game), assists (15.9 per game). No. 2 in steals (8.8 per game) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.2), and No. 3 in field goal shooting (47.5 percent).

 While it hopes for three more this weekend, Furman has already set the single-season record for wins in school history. That was just the latest record to fall this season. Lyons broke the school record for most 3-pointers in a season and currently has 91, while Matt Rafferty shattered the single-season steals record and has 77.

There's no doubt that everyone involved in the program wants a SoCon title, but sending Brown and Rafferty out on top would be especially sweet. Not only for being the winningest senior class in school history at 89-44, but for what they've overcome to achieve that. After recovering from a potentially life-threatening infection following surgery in March, Brown then had to overcome a broken foot that he re-injured in the Loyola win.

When watching Rafferty impact a game in the many different ways he can these days, it's easy to forget that he's worked his way back from back surgery that cost him most of his sophomore season. This year, Rafferty put together simply one of the most brilliant all-around seasons any Paladin has ever had.

Rafferty ranks first in the SoCon in field goal percentage (62.8 percent), third in rebounding (9.1 per game), assists (4.2 per game) and steals (2.6 per game), fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.0), fifth in scoring (17.4 points per game) and blocked shots (1.1 per game), and seventh in free throw shooting (77.1 percent).

"We're able to utilize him in so many different capacities, and really the only thing he cares about is winning," Richey said. "He could care less about how much he scores or how many touches he gets.
"Most young players think, 'if I go score 20, I'm going to help us win this game.' What Matt understands that it really is the little things that end up equating to winning. He's as selfless as a person as I've seen. It's really remarkable.
"He impacted winning more than any player in the history of the school, from a career level and also a season level. Most wins in a season. Most wins in a career. He's just the ultimate winner."

While it's been a couple of months since Furman highlights have appeared on ESPN, all those wins have still been noticed. So much so, that some "bracketology" experts have the Paladins on the bubble of making the NCAA Tournament and potentially giving the SoCon two teams in the field for the first time.

While the tournament talk has been remarkable for longtime SoCon followers, the only guarantee for a ticket to the big dance is to be the team cutting down the nets on Monday. With that, Furman is sticking to Plan A. The Paladins will try to get there by focusing on the task at hand and playing like they know they can.

"Let's just go be Furman on Saturday night. Then if we're fortunate enough to get through that, let's go be Furman again on Sunday, and if we're fortunate enough to win that, let's go be Furman again on Monday," Richey said. "If you go play well, all this stuff is going to work out like it's supposed to. ... Let's just go do that and see where it takes us."

Thursday, March 7, 2019

No. 2 seed Furman women ready for Asheville

Leading scorer Le'Jzae Davidson (17.2 points per game) has led Furman to
a second-place finish in the SoCon this season. Photo courtesy of Furman
Following its highest finish in the Southern Conference in five years, the Furman women's basketball team opens SoCon Tournament play Thursday as the No. 2 seed. The Paladins (17-12, 9-5) will take on No. 7 seed Samford in the opening round at 3:30 p.m. in Asheville.

Just like the last time Furman finished second in the SoCon in the 2013-14, a team that went undefeated in league play is the No. 1 seed. Back then it was Chattanooga. This year it's Mercer, who swept through SoCon competition for the second consecutive year. After suffering a tight loss at Mercer in the last week of the regular season on Feb. 28, the Paladins would love one more shot at the Bears but there's plenty of work that must be done before a potential championship game between the top two seeds on Sunday.

That work starts Thursday against a Samford team that the Paladins dominated this season. Furman led 16-0 after one quarter of the matchup in Greenville before going on to a 56-37 win. The Paladins closed out the regular season with a 74-41 win at Samford on Saturday in a game they actually trailed 12-10 after one quarter. Coach Jackie Carson knows that her team can't take anything for granted though.

"Samford is very dangerous. They're nothing reflective of what the score was either here or there," Carson said. "The toughest loss of my career was last year in the tournament against them. We don't want a repeat of that."

Furman seemed destined to easily lock up the No. 2 seed after four straight wins in February. But the Paladins wrapped up the regular season on a three-game road trip that began with an 84-75 loss at Wofford. Furman then traveled to Mercer and fell behind 22-5 in the second quarter, then trailed 42-27 midway through the third. The Paladins got off the deck and came all the way back to tie the game 49-49 on Le'Jzae Davidson's 3-pointer with 4:24 left and again at 51-51 on Celina Taborn's layup with 3:33 left.

Mercer answered and went on to secure a 66-62 win. Despite the loss, the efforts of Furman's comeback may have carried over momentum to the regular season finale at Samford where the Paladins played perhaps their finest game of the season.

"We just said (before the Samford game), 'we can't come out and start like we did at Wofford and at Mercer,' " Carson said. "It was a hard fought No. 2 seed. In the last week, we could've finished anywhere from second to sixth depending on how everything played out. That really speaks to how strong the conference is."

The fact that Furman positioned itself for a second place finish may have surprised many. After losing three starters from last season, including leading scorer Cierra Carter, the Paladins were picked third (coaches) and fifth (media) in the preseason SoCon polls.

Furman then had to overcome injuries prior to and during the season. Those situations included post players Taborn and Tierra Hodges. Taborn has played in all 29 games, but only made 17 starts following offseason surgery. Hodges, Furman's leading rebounder, missed all of last season with a knee injury and wasn't healthy to start this season.

"Celina hasn't been able to play at her best all season long, so we've had to manage her and limit her minutes," Carson said. "Hodges has been a huge spark. She's our workhorse, but she was out for the first six weeks."

The Paladins also had to regroup and carry on after wrapping up non-conference play with a 78-74 home loss to North Greenville. Out of 15 visitors to Timmons Arena this season, the Division II Crusaders joined Middle Tennessee State and Mercer as the only teams to leave with a victory.

"I didn't really feel good going into the North Greenville game. I don't feel like we had the right approach collectively and that's on me," Carson said. "But everything happens for a reason. I honestly feel like we may have needed to lose that game to have the season that we've had."

Davidson and Taborn have led the way for Furman this season and were recognized for their efforts with All-SoCon honors. Davidson earned first team honors by the media and second team by the coaches, while Taborn made each second team. Davidson, who leads the league in free throws (117) and free throw percentage (84.2), leads the Paladins in scoring at 17.2 points per game and steals (42). The junior already has the school record for career 3-pointers with 228.

Despite still working her way back from the offseason surgery, Taborn averages 11.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. The sophomore's SoCon-best 66 percent field goal percentage is on pace to break Furman's single-season record.

Point guard Milica Manojlovic (4.6 ppg, 67 assists, 25 steals) was named to the SoCon All-Freshman team after sitting out last season with a knee injury. Senior forward Kaitlyn Duncan (6.1 ppg, 6.8 rebounds per game, 37 blocks, 22 steals) made the league's All-Defensive team after helping Furman hold a SoCon-best 38.4 defensive shooting percentage.

The Paladins have also gotten significant contributions from Presbyterian transfer Taylor Petty (8.5 ppg), who has overcome a shin injury, Hodges (6.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and Jarya Outten (68 assists, 26 steals).

"We've rarely practiced with all of our girls, but we've managed it and competed together. We've really jelled and bought in, stuck together and jelled," Carson said. "The Samford game was the best 'buy-in,' offensively and defensively, of our game plan all season.
"You have to feel pretty good as a coach when that's coming in the last game before the tournament. I think we have an opportunity and the right mindset to do very well at the tournament."

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Paladins rout Mocs, clinch SoCon's No. 3 seed

Matt Rafferty had 20 points, 13 rebounds and four rebounds to lead Furman
to a 71-50 win at Chattanooga Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - In the final regular season game of his career Saturday, Furman senior Matt Rafferty did nothing to hurt his Southern Conference Player of the Year chances. Rafferty had game-highs in points (20), rebounds (13) and assists (4) as the Paladins downed Chattanooga, 71-50.

With its fifth consecutive road victory, Furman (24-6, 13-5) breaks the school's single-season record for wins and clinches the No. 3 seed at next weekend's SoCon Tournament. The Paladins will face either Mercer at approximately 8:30 p.m. in next Saturday's quarterfinals.

As has been the case in typically all of Furman's wins this season, the No. 1-ranked defense in the SoCon was on full display Saturday. The Paladins limited Chattanooga to 34.5 percent shooting from the floor, 27.3 percent shooting on 3-pointers, including 1-of-8 on 3s in the second half.

Entering Saturday, Chattanooga leading scorer Kevin Easley was averaging 14.7 points per game, while Ramon Vila and Jerry Johnson Jr. were each averaging 10.2 per game. Furman held Easley to five points on 2-of-12 shooting, held Johnson to six points on 2-of-12 shooting and Vila to five points on 2-of-3 shooting.

"I thought Alex Hunter was phenomenal tonight, but he was really good in key stretches," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "I thought Jordan Lyons really turned it up. He only scored two points, but his energy really changed this game. When he really started locking down on defense and really crawled into the ball ... that creates ignition plays.
"When one guy steps up and decides to play like that, it's contagious. It energizes everybody."

While Chattanooga's starting lineup included 6-foot-10 Justin Brown and 7-foot Thomas Smallwood - the Mocs' lone senior on Senior Day, Rafferty was unfazed. Rafferty scored the Paladins' first nine points of the game. Not surprisingly he assisted on the first points not scored by him, when he found fellow senior Andrew Brown for a 3-pointer that gave Furman a 12-10 lead at the 13:43 mark of the first half.

"It was a business trip. You've got to stick the game plan and not do anything flashy or crazy. That's not us," Rafferty said. "I think we did a good job of that and the score went our way."

That early lead by the Mocs marked just the second time the Paladins had trailed on the road since their loss at Wofford on Jan. 19. Furman had only been behind for a total of two minutes and two seconds - all in the first five minutes at Western Carolina - over its previous four road games, but trailed for 5:03 Saturday. There was one tie and eight lead changes for the game, but no more after Alex Hunter's 3-pointer gave Furman a 26-25 lead with 2:31 left in the half.

That bucket started a 7-0 run as the Paladins blanked UTC over the final 3:44 of the half to take a 30-25 lead into halftime. Rafferty had 13 points and eight rebounds in the first half and Furman held the advantage despite no points from second- and third-leading scorers Lyons and Clay Mounce.

"Matt's Matt. ... It's contagious on his end as well when he battles like that," Richey said. "But I thought we had a lot of guys step up. Our depth was really good and I thought all nine guys had an impact today."

Coming out of halftime, Furman picked right up it left off going in. Nine seconds in, Noah Gurley hit a layup off a feed from Rafferty. Rafferty grabbed a pair of rebounds over the next 41 seconds for his 15th double-double of the season. After UTC's Ramon Vila dunked to cut the lead back to five at the 18:39 mark, Furman went on a 10-2 run capped by Brown's 3-pointer with 13:57 left. That staked the Paladins to a 42-29 lead and they never led by fewer than 11 the rest of the way.

Hunter went 4-for-5 on 3-pointers and finished with 16 points, while Brown hit 3-of-6 from beyond the arc and was the lone other Paladin in double figures with 11 points.

No matter how big or small, every Furman contribution counted on Saturday. Gurley had eight points and four assists, while Mounce finished with seven points and three blocked shots.

Jalen Slawson had three rebounds, a dunk, an assist, a steal, no turnovers and no fouls in his nine minutes. Backup point guard Mike Bothwell had no turnovers and knocked down a 3-pointer in 11 minutes off the bench. And on a day when Furman was just 4-of-6 from the foul line, Tre Clark looked nothing like a 37.5 percent free throw shooter when he confidently drilled a pair that gave Furman an early 16-15 lead.

"The mental fight that these guys go through, most fans don't understand how hard it is. You can only play five at a time and we've got a really good team," Richey said. "First team ever to win 24 games in Furman history and you're not doing that unless you have a close team. These guys play for each other and play to win.
"For a guy like Jordan to maintain his effort and intensity, when he only scores two points, that shows you where his head's at and where his heart's at."

While disappointed with losing last Saturday's highly anticipated home finale against Wofford, the Paladins knew they couldn't afford to let it beat them twice. Rafferty said, much like the previous home loss to Samford, the Paladins used it as a learning experience and promptly took care of business in the two road games this week.

"We had a good week of practice and got back to how we play defensively and offensively," Rafferty said. "We're having a little more fun out there and smiling a little more. I think we put a little too much pressure on (last Saturday's game).
"There's going to be pressure in the tournament, so I think that gave us a good lesson."

David Jean-Baptiste led the Mocs (12-19, 7-11) with 13 points, six rebounds and four steals.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Paladins bounce back, avenge loss to Samford

Furman's Alex Hunter had 15 points and a career-high 10 rebounds in the
Paladins' 90-81 win at Samford Thursday. Photo courtesy of Furman
Five days after dropping what may have been the biggest game in the history of Timmons Arena to Wofford, the Furman men's basketball responded just as Coach Bob Richey figured they would. The Paladins jumped out to a 10-point lead less than seven minutes into Thursday's game and cruised to a 90-81 win at Samford.

The win avenges a stunning 75-73 loss to Samford in Greenville earlier this season, and gives Furman (23-6, 12-5 Southern Conference) a new school record for regular season wins for the second year in a row. The Paladins are now tied with ETSU for third place in the league and can secure the No. 3 seed at the SoCon Tournament - in the opposite side of the bracket from top-seeded Wofford - with a win at Chattanooga in Saturday's regular season finale.

"I wouldn't have expected anything less from this group," Richey said about Thursday's start. "We've got great senior leadership and guys that have won a lot of games and it shows.
"They understand that every game stands on its own two feet and you don't have time to worry about your wounds. You just have to figure out ways to grow and get better and I thought we did a great job of that this week."

Furman is now one of 10 teams who have won at least 23 games each of the last three seasons. The others are Duke, Gonzaga, Kentucky, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico State, North Carolina, UNCG and Virginia.

Thursday's win was the Paladins' fourth consecutive road victory and marked the 11th time this season that they never trailed in a game. Outside of a 2:02 stretch where Furman fell behind 2-0 at Western Carolina, the Paladins haven't trailed on the road since their loss at Wofford on Jan. 19.

Furman led 11-10 Thursday before going on a 9-0 run capped by Andrew Brown's 3-pointer to make it 20-10 with 13:22 left in the first half. Samford got that lead down to four before Furman popped off another 9-0 run, this one capped by Jordan Lyons' four-point play.

Clay Mounce's 3-pointer with 33 seconds left staked the Paladins to their biggest lead of the half as they led 50-35 at the break. Furman shot 58.1 percent from the floor in the opening half, including 9-of-17 3-pointers.

"The ball movement was really crisp early. We were really unselfish," Richey said. "We had two 3s back-to-back where Clay hit one and Jordan (Lyons) hit one and they happened after both of them hit the one more pass to each other.
"When you see stuff like that over the course of a game, that's when you know guys are playing for each other. As a coach, that's what always gives you the biggest thrill - when you see a group become one out there on both ends of the floor."

Furman came out of the second half with yet another 9-0 run to take its biggest lead at 59-35 with 15:48 left. After that point, things only got a little hairy after the Paladins began getting whistled for a barrage of fouls. Those included Noah Gurley's fourth foul with 12:05 left, Mounce's fourth foul with 10:14 left and Matt Rafferty's fourth foul with 7:25 left.

The Bulldogs (16-14, 6-11) hit 14-of-18 free throws in the second half, but could never cut the deficit below nine. When Samford had to start fouling down the stretch, Furman made it pay going 18-of-18 from the foul line in the second half. The Paladins were 23-of-24 on free throws for the game.

Lyons led all five starters in double figure scoring with 17 points for the Paladins. Rafferty, Mounce and Alex Hunter each scored 15, while Gurley had 11 in just 18 minutes. Brown scored nine off the bench. Rafferty had 11 rebounds and was credited with six assists, as two seemingly obvious ones weren't credited for whatever reason. Hunter also pulled down a career-high 10 rebounds.

"We almost had six double-figure scorers and then our point guard gets 10 rebounds," Richey said. "I thought it was a total team effort. ... We had some good cutting, sharing and we got out and ran."

Myron Gordon scored 21 points and Kevion Nolan had 18 off the bench to lead Samford. Dynamic point guard Josh Sharkey had 13 points in the first half, but none in the second on 0-of-1 shooting for the Bulldogs.