Sunday, March 10, 2019

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.

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