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."

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