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.

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