Friday, October 4, 2019

Downtown to host some Furman hoops again

Furman Athletic Director Jason Donnelly speaks during a press conference
at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena Thursday morning.
In the first event ever held at the Greenville Memorial Auditorium, Jerry West scored 29 points to help the No. 1-ranked West Virginia men's basketball team rally from a six-point second half deficit and defeat Furman, 76-67, on Dec. 1, 1958. That season-opening victory was the Mountaineers' 37th consecutive Southern Conference win.

In the last college basketball game ever held at the Auditorium, Davidson rallied from a 10-point deficit with seven minutes to play and defeated Furman, 88-79 in overtime, on Feb. 26, 1996. That season-ending victory was the Wildcats' 17th consecutive win as they became the first team to go undefeated in SoCon play since Furman in 1975.

In the 38 years between those defeats, the Paladins' old home court saw a lot more Furman wins than losses. Now the Paladins are winning again and are headed back downtown again, for a few games at least. A press conference was held at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena Thursday morning to announce that Furman would hold three men's games and one women's game there this season.

"Weekends at the Well will only heighten the Arena's relationship with Furman University, as well as put a spotlight on the success of their basketball programs," BSWA General Manager Beth Paul said. "We look forward to reconnecting Paladin basketball to downtown Greenville and to creating a best-in-class experience for Furman's student-athletes, coaches, athletic staff, faculty, alumni, fans and students."

The "Weekends at the Well" schedule has Furman facing Winthrop on Dec. 14 at noon, UNC Greensboro on Jan. 11 at 7 p.m. and Wofford on Feb. 22 at noon. Prior to the UNCG game, the Furman women's team will face Samford there at 4:30.

Since the former Bi-Lo Center opened in 1998, the Furman men have played 19 games there. These three games will be the most the Paladins have played in a regular season there and be their first games there since an 80-77 overtime loss to College of Charleston on Feb. 19, 2007.

Furman is looking at this as a way to strengthen the connection between the school and the city of Greenville. It may also attract new fans to a product that's been very entertaining of late. The Paladin men were ranked in the top 25 for the first time ever last season and finished with a school-record 25 wins. Meanwhile, the Paladin women won 19 games and fought a Mercer team that hasn't lost to a SoCon team in three years down to the wire of last season's SoCon women's championship.

"We have a historic tradition of being part of this city. ... This is our opportunity to get back in the city and really further our brand," Furman Athletic Director Jason Donnelly said. "We've got a phenomenal basketball product with both of our men's and women's teams. They're both ready for this opportunity."

Paul opened Thursday's press conference before Donnelly spoke. Furman President Elizabeth Davis and Greenville Mayor Knox White also shared their thoughts. Those in attendance included Furman men's and women's head coaches, Bob Richey and Jackie Carson, along with Furman staff and cheerleaders.

Davis spoke about the many connections Furman continues to make with the city and downtown area and pointed out that 7,000 alumni reside in the area. White touched on the history Furman basketball made in downtown, including Frank Selvy's 100-point game at the old Textile Hall, Furman's home court prior to Memorial Auditorium.

"Some great things happened at the old Auditorium. Those memories are still out there and the stories are still told, but they never thought it would happen again downtown," White said. "So thank you to everyone who made this possible and for getting it down so quickly. ... I have no doubt the community will be all in on painting the town purple."

Making this collaboration happen was a big priority for Donnelly, who only began his AD duties in August. It was also a case of "been there, done that."

"Three games here this season is actually perfect. I've got to be honest. I borrowed this a little bit from a blueprint I did at Villanova. There we played on campus in a 6,500-seat arena and we'd also play downtown at the Wells Fargo Center in a 20,000-seat arena," Donnelly said. "The goal here is to have three great games here this season, to pack the house and have a great environment.
"We're still committed to a great on-campus environment at Timmons Arena, but to have three to five games here annually against the right opponents is the goal for the future."

The Well will always be a special place for Carson. It's where her legendary playing career wound down as a senior in 2000 when the facility hosted the SoCon Women's Tournament. She led the Paladins to double-digit wins in all three of their SoCon Tournament games year as they cut down the nets for the second time in school history.

"The feel around this arena when you're playing in it is incomparable. I can't wait for our girls to experience it," Carson said. "I think it truly shows we're Greenville's team and I would love for everyone to come see what our women's program is all about.
"We have a very passionate group of almost like internal fans. This opens a door for more."

As the Furman men have continued to pile up wins during Richey's coaching tenure, Timmons Arena has transformed into one of the toughest places to play in the league. The atmosphere, especially when a Wofford comes to town, has reached a level that the most optimistic Furman fan could've never imagined the once downtrodden program could reach.

Richey is confident home-court advantage won't be lost. In fact, he has visions of creating an even greater home court advantage in what could become the Paladins home away from home. That vision includes a Furman basketball game at The Well becoming an obvious choice for folks visiting downtown on a Saturday.

"Jason thinks big and I like that. ... There's risk to everything, but there's reward to everything. I'd rather talk about the reward because we've shown - through the four or five sellouts at Timmons last year and the energy we had in the postseason (home NIT) game - that we can take this to a new venue," Richey said. "Let's not put limiting beliefs on this. If you're saying 'this place is too big,' or 'we're going to lose home-court advantage,' that's not the train of thought that we're trying to get here. That's what permeated us for a long, long time.
"I challenge our fan base and supporters. When you hear about this, you've got to get behind it. Let's go do something big together. That's just how all this works. Somebody's got to step up and say, 'we can go do something that people don't think we can do.' That's what this program has been able to do a few times over the last few years. ... I just look at this as another opportunity to do that."

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