Saturday, January 4, 2020

Paladins hit the boards to topple ETSU

Tre Clark had 10 points and seven rebounds in Furman's 65-56
win over ETSU Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman
While Saturday's showdown between Furman and ETSU featured a pair of the country's top mid-major teams each riding five-game winning streaks, there was a pretty significant advantage on paper. ETSU led the Southern Conference in rebounding margin at +7.4, while Furman ranked last in the league with a margin of -2.1.

But as often has been said, games aren't played on paper. There's no stats for heart, grit and determination. The Paladins showed plenty of all three to win the rebounding battle, which helped them record a 65-56 win over the Bucs before a raucous crowd of 2,314 at Timmons Arena.

"We pride ourselves on what we call, 'TGHT.' That stands for 'the game honors toughness.' " said Jordan Lyons, who scored a game-high 14 points. "We knew this was going to be a big TGHT game. We had to be the mentally toughest team on the court and I think we did a really good job of that."

The win, combined with Wofford's double-overtime win over UNC Greensboro later on Saturday, left Furman (13-3) as the only team at 3-0 in the SoCon. Samford and Western Carolina, who are each 2-0 in league play, are the only other teams without a conference loss after the first full week of SoCon play.

ETSU (13-3, 2-1) entered Saturday averaging more than 38 rebounds a game, but had just 11 in the first half as Furman overcame a slow start to take a 35-28 lead at the half. While the Bucs got the lead down to one two minutes into the second half, they never got closer. The Paladins, who led by as many as 15 in the second half, enjoyed a 41-28 rebounding advantage led by Noah Gurley's career-high 12 boards.

"What showed out tonight was the we have guys that can rebound the ball. ... We just haven't been doing it at the level we need to do it," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "The whole message this week was that there was no better opportunity to go show that this team can rebound.
"That's a big-time effort by our team. I've been in games around here nine years. That's got to be up there in the top three in terms of just toughness and effort. ... There was zero room for weakness in this game from a mental standpoint. ... I thought we were strong and courageous with our mentality and connection and that's what won us the game."

Against Division I opponents this season, Furman had only eclipsed the 35-rebound mark in a game once. The Paladins pulled down 44 in a 44-point win at Charleston Southern early this season. Furman was facing an entirely different beast on Saturday.

Lyons scored 91 points over his previous three games and ETSU surely took note. Furman trailed 20-14 with 6:10 left when Lyons scored his first points of the day on a contested 3-pointer. That started a 13-0 run that got the crowd - which was missing students who are still on winter break - whipped into a frenzy.

To beat a team as talented as ETSU, it was going to take a total team effort and that was exhibited during the run. Mike Bothwell had a steal and a layup to give Furman it's first lead and one it never relinquished. Tre Clark stole away the Bucs' next possession, got the ball to Alex Hunter who found Lyons for a 3-pointer to make it 24-20. Jalen Slawson, who had four 3-pointers this season and two last year, hit his second three of the day to cap the run.

"When you start seeing Jordan and other guys start banging threes, it's like an energy that gets sparked throughout our team," Clark said. "When that first three (by Lyons) went in, everybody started going."

Furman led 41-38 with 13:30 left to play when Slawson faked ETSU standout Jeromy Rodriguez out of his shoes and found Clark for a dunk. That sparked a 14-2 run, which was highlighted by a Hunter 3-pointer following two offensive rebounds and another dunk by Clark off a feed from Gurley.

ETSU made one last charge. Bo Hodges appeared to be on his way to cutting the lead to seven with three-and-a-half minutes to play when Slawson soared in and pinned the ball to the backboard for a block. Bothwell corralled the rebound and fired to Lyons who pulled and popped a 3-pointer to push the lead to 12. The Bucs didn't score again until the 1:12 mark and Furman was up 63-49 by then.

"Big time play by Slaw. ... It's a big-time, winning play to chase that down and get the block," Lyons said. "We were able to get out in transition off it and that's kind of what we do. We like to run and find each other's shots. A blocked shot can essentially be like a turnover in that you can have numbers (on a fast break)."

Hodges was the lone ETSU player in double figures with 12 points. Bucs leading scorer Tray Boyd, who was averaging 13.9 points per game, was held to five points on 2-of-10 shooting. Rodriguez, who had a combined 40 points and 18 rebounds in two games against Furman last season, had six points and five rebounds Saturday. Lucas N'Guessan, a 7-foot senior transfer from Oklahoma State, had two points and seven rebounds.

Along with his 14 points, Lyons had a season-high six rebounds. Clay Mounce and Gurley each scored 10 points, while Slawson finished with eight and Hunter had seven. Hunter also had a season-high seven assists with just one turnover against an ETSU defense that had 13 steals and forced 19 turnovers.

But if there was only one MVP for Furman Saturday, it had to be Clark. The junior finished with season-highs in points (10) and rebounds (7) with two steals and no turnovers in 22 minutes off the bench.

"I looked Tre dead in his eyes this morning and said, 'This is your game because there are guys out there than you can physically guard and you can go rebound with anybody on that court,' and man did he. I couldn't be more proud of him." Richey said. "He didn't play like he wanted to in Lexington (at VMI Wednesday), but he owned it. ... He's been focused the last few days and I just knew he was primed for a big game."

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