Friday, March 8, 2019

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."

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