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.

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