Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Reflecting on Furman's historic hoops season

Furman coach Bob Richey
It's been nearly four months since Furman's record-breaking 2018-19 men's basketball season ended. For those who followed the team all year, the memories of the finale are probably as clear as if it was held just four days ago.

Furman and Wichita State lived up to the mantra of "playing like there's no tomorrow." After 14 lead changes, 12 ties and no lead greater than seven, Wichita State advanced in the NIT Tournament with a 76-70 win. You can read more details about the game in the story I wrote for the Spartanburg Herald here: Wichita State outslugs Furman in NIT.

That story was written against a tight deadline, but a longer deadline - maybe even a four-month one - couldn't have helped a story do that game justice. Quite simply, it was one of the greatest games Timmons Arena has ever held.

"What a game," Furman coach Bob Richey said in the postgame press conference. "That was a big-time college basketball game out there.
"I couldn't be more proud of our team and what they've accomplished. A lot of times in this business it's really easy to lose perspective, but what they've done is incredible."

With a No. 41 ranking in the new NET rankings that were supposedly created to help seed the 68-team NCAA Tournament field, Furman was hoping to return to the Big Dance for the first time since 1980. Instead, it was selected to host an NIT game for the first time in school history: Snubbed Furman excited about NIT No. 3 seed.

Home court was about the only advantage that the Paladins had as a No. 3 seed. In Wichita State, Furman faced a team that had went to the NCAA Tournament each of the prior seven seasons after winning the NIT championship in 2011. After seeing them up close and personal, it became pretty evident that the only thing keeping the Shockers out of this year's NCAA Tournament was an 8-11 start to this "rebuilding" season for Gregg Marshall's team.

Wichita State validated that thought by going on to win by eight at Clemson in round two and by 10 at Indiana in round three. In running their NIT winning streak to eight consecutive game, the Shockers became the first team ever to win three NIT games on the road to advance to the Big Apple. Their run ended in a 71-64 loss to Lipscomb in the semifinals at historic Madison Square Garden.

In his final game as a Paladin, Matt Rafferty capped off an incredible senior season with one of his signature stat lines. Rafferty had team-highs in points (27), rebounds (8), assists (5) and steals (5). Rafferty did all of that while still playing with a thumb injury suffered at the Southern Conference Tournament. After the game, Richey dropped the bombshell that Rafferty was also playing with a torn labrum - an injury he suffered a month-and-a-half earlier at Wofford and aggravated against Wichita.

"They don't make them any tougher than that guy," Richey said.

In a season full of chills, one last collection of goosebumps formed with Rafferty and fellow senior Andrew Brown checked out of the game with one second left. Each section of the sold out crowd - the ones in purple and the ones in black and gold - gave the winningest basketball players in school history a rousing standing ovation.

Matt Rafferty and Andrew Brown embrace
after their final game at Furman.
That crowd was a big part of what made that night - even with the Paladins' loss - so special. The energy the fans provided was a perfect soundtrack to the beautiful basketball performance each team provided. Among those in the crowd were a good number of Wichita State fans, who made the long trip on short notice. (Basketball is taken pretty seriously in the Sunflower State).

For longtime attendees of Furman home basketball games, it had to be a surreal sight. This was a sold out Timmons Arena on a church night for a game that wasn't scheduled until late in the night three days earlier. That could be the best indicator yet of the incredible transformation the program has made over the last five years.

But that transformation is ongoing. After a school record 25-win season this year, Richey is confident that its another step on the journey up - even without Rafferty next season.

"I remember four years ago we won 19 games and Stephen Croone was the Player of the Year in the league. All we heard that whole offseason was, 'they're losing the player of the year. They're going to take a step back,' and all this program did was take a step forward," Richey said. "We won 21 regular season games and a share of the Southern Conference title and then it was 'they're losing Kris Acox. What's going to happen? They're going to be smaller.'
"So then last year, they match the school's win record at 23 games and then it's, 'wow, they're losing their three starting guards and four seniors. This is probably going to be a little bit of a rebuilding team.' And all this group went on to do was win a school record for overall games, wins on the national stage that haven't been done in a very long time. You can go on and on and on about what this team's accomplished.
"This journey the last four years, to be honest, was pretty unexpected. But that's the motivation, the passion and the drive moving forward."

Wins at 2018 Final Four participant Loyola (Ill.) and 2018 national champion Villanova earned Furman quite a bit of national recognition. More publicity came when Jordan Lyons tied the single-game NCAA Division I record for 3-pointers, Rafferty obliterated the school's single-season steals record and the Paladins made the top 25 for the first time ever.

Opposing coaches have noticed too. Even in the moments after his team's huge victory and his 500th career win, Marshall reflected on the Furman program.

The Greenwood native said he grew up watching the likes of Jonathan 'Stitch' Moore and Clyde Mayes play for the Paladins and attended former coach Joe Williams' basketball camps in the mid-70s. He then noted the 1991 NIT team coached by Butch Estes before turning his attention to the present.

"This is a special win because of those circumstances and because we beat a really good team that's very well coached," Marshall said. "I can't sing Coach Richey and the Paladins' praises any more.
"I think what Bob's doing here is very similar to what I saw Coach (Bob) McKillop do when he got things rolling at Davidson."

Coming soon: There's one more basketball story from this season that must be told. It's a story about how the bond of friendship between Matt Rafferty and Andrew Brown got them through hard times off the court and helped make them winners on it.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for a wonderful reflection of a special season for this life long Furman basketball fan.