Friday, February 28, 2020

Lineup tweak pays off for Paladins

Furman junior point guard Alex Hunter ranks fourth in the country in
assist-to-turnover ratio this season at 3.31. Photo courtesy of Furman
Furman was one of three teams in the country to have the same starting five for every men's basketball game this season until a scorebook snafu inserted Mike Bothwell into the lineup in last Saturday's win over Wofford. In Wednesday's victory at UNC Greensboro, Bothwell made career start number two and everyone was fully aware of that being the plan.

The sophomore point guard didn't start in place of junior starting point guard Alex Hunter though. Instead it was Clay Mounce who came off the bench. The move benefited all parties involved and for the team as the Paladins rolled to an 81-67 win to lock down the No. 2 seed at next week's Southern Conference Tournament.

"I had one of the hardest decisions of my early three-year career this week. I knew that we had to start Mike. I knew he deserved it and it was just his time," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "You can't argue that he's not a top five guy for us. You just can't. We decided to put him in and then we had to decide how we're going to rotate them and who goes to the bench.
"To be able to go double point guard versus the press, I thought that was something we had to do."

The lineup change paid off immediately as Furman got off to a 12-4 lead less than four minutes in Wednesday. During that stretch, Hunter had a 3-pointer, three assists, two rebounds and a steal while Bothwell had an assist. On the last two buckets during that stretch, Mounce - who checked in at the 17:08 mark - had a 3-pointer and assisted on Hunter's three.

"I told him to go lose himself in the game, play as hard as you can, focus on deflections and rebounds and you'll make your shots. He made some shots," Richey said of Mounce. "I credit Clay a whole lot for how he responded. He took it great and knew his minutes weren't going to change a whole lot and knew he was still a big part of the game plan.
"Everybody knows that we need Clay. He's a big-time player."

Richey has maintained that Furman "has seven starters" all season, so not starting hasn't equated to a lack of minutes for any of those magnificent seven all year. That didn't change Wednesday, especially without the services of one of those in Tre Clark (concussion protocol).

Mounce was one point shy of there being six Paladins in double figures as he finished with nine points and six rebounds in 20 minutes. A little bit of foul trouble cost Mounce a chance at more minutes. Meanwhile, Bothwell finished with 13 points and led the team with plus-26 points, which was Furman's total advantage over UNCG during his 34 minutes on the court.

Having another point guard on the floor seemed to only help Hunter. Facing a Spartans team that has given him hard times in the past, Hunter excelled Wednesday. He finished with 11 points, six assists, two steals and one turnover. Hunter currently ranks fourth in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.31.

"This past week, Coach (Richey) has been telling us to play confident and be the aggressor. Once we started attacking them, their pressure let up a little bit. I don't think they're used to people attacking that," Hunter said following the game. "That opened up driving lanes for me to get guys the ball and even get my own shots.
"Having two point guards out there being able to maneuver throughout and even dribble out of some situations that some other guys might not be used to doing helped out. Mike's been playing well, so he's deserving anyway."

The highlight of Hunter's night happened after he got a steal halfway between the Furman bench and midcourt. Hunter was right up against the out of bounds line when he grabbed the loose ball and was immediately double teamed by the Spartans from behind. He somehow made a perfect no-look flip of the ball over his head and down the court to Bothwell for a layup that pushed Furman's lead to 20-9 midway through the first half.

"I remember him running by me, but couldn't see him. I caught it right there by Coach and he said, 'just throw it,' so I just threw it and we got the bucket," Hunter said. "I credit Coach for that one."

Richey estimated that he and his staff dialed up only four offensive plays the entire night against UNCG. Instead, it was more of trusting his players to sticks with the concepts of Furman's offensive style.

"Alex took that challenge of 'if Coach is going to trust me with the ball in my hands to go get in the paint and make plays, I can't go out here and play conservative. We've got to unleash and go,' " Richey said.

Men's game caps busy Saturday
Saturday will be one of the busiest of the year on Furman's campus. The men's tennis team hosts College of Charleston at 11 a.m. The football team's annual Purple-White spring scrimmage is set for noon. The baseball team hosts Fordham at 1 p.m. The basketball teams close out their respective regular seasons with a doubleheader starting at 2 p.m. when the women host Wofford. The men take on Citadel at approximately 4:30.

It will be Senior Day for basketball as the women's team seniors, Le'Jzae Davidson and Taylor Petty, and the lone men's team senior, Jordan Lyons, will be honored. The men's team will also be looking to break the school's single season record for overall wins and SoCon wins, both of which were established last season.

SoCon Tournament pairings set
While all the seeds have not been decided just yet, all of the first round and quarterfinal matchups are set for the SoCon Tournament. The men's tournament begins at 5 p.m. next Friday in Asheville when No. 7 seed Wofford faces 10th-seeded Citadel. That will be followed by VMI against Samford in the 8/9 game. That seeding will be determined Saturday when the teams face off in Alabama.

The quarterfinals feature a stacked lineup. It begins with top-seeded ETSU facing the 8/9 winner at noon, followed by Mercer vs. Western Carolina in the 4/5 matchup. Those seeds will be finalized Saturday. The night session begins with Furman against the 7/10 winner at 6 p.m., followed by No. 3 seed UNCG vs. No. 6 Chattanooga.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Paladins top UNCG, clinch SoCon's No. 2 seed

Jalen Slawson had a career-high 17 points and nine rebounds in Furman's
81-67 win at UNC Greensboro Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman
GREENSBORO, N.C. - When UNC Greensboro visited Greenville this season and left with an 86-73 win over Furman, it marked the Spartans' sixth victory in the last seven games in the series. Five of those six were by double digits, which certainly could've raised the question of if the UNCG matchup was simply too much for the Paladins.

In Wednesday's rematch before a raucous crowd of 4,256 at the Greensboro Coliseum, Furman answered that question with an emphatic "no!" Noah Gurley and Jalen Slawson scored 17 points apiece as the Paladins lit up the best defense in the Southern Conference in an 81-67 win to spoil UNCG's Senior Night. Furman (24-6, 14-3), which became the first opponent to score more than 80 points on the Spartans' home floor this season, clinched the No. 2 seed in the SoCon Tournament and tied the school record for single-season wins and SoCon wins.

ETSU (26-4, 15-2) rallied from a 14-point deficit to win at Wofford Wednesday to lock up the SoCon's No. 1 seed. The Paladins could still share the regular season conference title with a win over Citadel Saturday and an ETSU loss to Western Carolina, but the Buccaneers would still have the top seed thanks to its season sweep of the third-place Spartans (23-7, 13-4).

"I couldn't be more proud of this group. It's hard to win in here. Their senior group has won over 100 games. ... We knew it was going to be a battle," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "When you're a coach and you're in those battles, the proud moments are when you're team responds.
"Twice in the second half, we responded. They cut it to three, we pushed it back to 10. They cut it two, we pushed it back to 10. That's a sign of a championship-level ball club."

Entering the game, UNCG led the SoCon in scoring defense (61.6 points allowed per game) and field goal percentage defense (41.6). Those numbers, combined with the fact that the Paladins had gotten off to extremely slow starts offensively each of the last three games, made a good start Wednesday kind of imperative.

After watching UNCG's winningest class in school history get honored in a pregame ceremony, Furman got off to that much needed hot start. The Paladins took a 12-4 lead less than four minutes into the game by making 5-of-7 from the floor, including a pair of 3-pointers, with assists on all five buckets.

In addition to their scoring output, Furman's post players provided big targets to help attack UNCG's full-court press. The flexibility of Slawson and Gurley in being able to handle that was a huge factor in Wednesday's outcome.

"We knew we had to give everything we had as a unit and I feel like we did a good job of that. We knew it was going to be a game won strictly off of toughness," said Slawson, who had a game-high nine rebounds along with his new career-high point total. "Coach told us how Noah and I handled their (full-court) pressure could get our guards (open) shots. With the way we've been shooting the ball lately, I think it was great for us to be able to get them shots."

Furman's offense never slowed down. When Mike Bothwell and Alex Hunter hit back-to-back threes, the Paladins led 40-24 with 2:21 left in the first half. It appeared Furman would take a double-digit lead into halftime as it led by 12 and was holding for the final shot, but the Paladins lost the ball in the final seconds. UNCG's Isaiah Miller grabbed the steal then drilled a 75-foot shot at the buzzer to cut the lead to 40-31 at the break.

While the Spartans made a prayer of a 3-pointer going into the half, they couldn't miss conventional threes after halftime. UNCG hit 5-of-6 from beyond the arc to cut the lead to 51-48 with 14:37 left. The only miss out of those resulted in an offensive rebound that led to another three. Furman responded with a 7-0 run over the next three-and-a-half minutes.

"I told the team at halftime that these guys got up on us by 16 in Greenville and with three (minutes) to go, it was a four-point game. Just like we didn't fold there, we knew they weren't going to fold," Richey said. "I'm just so proud of how we continued to respond."

It was a 67-63 game with 4:34 left when Furman nailed the coffin shut with a 14-2 run over the next four minutes. The key sequence of the run came when Jordan Lyons turned a steal into a three-point play and another Lyons' steal led to an Alex Hunter 3-pointer to push the lead to 75-65 with 2:27 left.

UNCG easily led the country in turnover margin at plus-7 going into Wednesday, but the Spartans had 17 turnovers while Furman had 13. The Paladins, who had only five turnovers in the second half, outscored UNCG 28-17 in points off turnovers.

"We couldn't let them outplay us energy-wise or effort-wise again. They won all the effort games in Greenville," said Gurley. "We watched film of the last Furman win up here (in the 2016-17 season). We saw just how aggressive those dudes like John Davis, Devin Sibley and (Kris) Acox were. They came up here fearless and that's how we tried to come out tonight."

Lyons had 14 points and four steals, while Bothwell scored 13 in his second career start. Hunter, who had some rough games against UNCG in the past, had 11 points, six assists, two steals and one turnover. Coming off the bench for the first time this year, Clay Mounce had nine points and six rebounds in 20 minutes.

Furman shot 50.9 percent from the floor, including 47.6 percent (10-of-21) from three. The Paladins also made 89.5 percent of their free throws, including 14-of-14 in the second half.

Along with the offensive success Wednesday, Furman did what it so often does on defense to the opponents' top scorer. Despite being without the services of defensive sparkplug Tre Clark (concussion protocol) again, the Paladins held Miller to nine points. Miller, who leads the SoCon in scoring at more than 20 points per game and ranks third in the country at 2.76 steals per game, was 3-of-13 from the floor and had only one steal - the one right before his halftime buzzer-beater.

"I was really worried that shot was going to really get him going. ... He's really good, one of the best players in the league. I was honest with the team. I told them we have nobody to guard this guy one-on-one," Richey said. "We had to guard him with multiple guys and make sure that he didn't have lanes he was comfortable driving in. The best way you guard a really good player is limit his touches and you don't let that guy beat you.
"We've been defending as well as anybody in the league the last month and we showed it tonight."

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Bothwell lifts Paladins over Wofford

Mike Bothwell celebrates following Furman's 67-66 win over
Wofford at The Well Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman
Mike Bothwell did plenty of things to help Furman rally in the second half against Wofford Saturday, but he saved the best for last. Bothwell spun out of a double team and into a layup to give the Paladins a 67-66 lead with 12.1 seconds left. Furman then watched the Terriers' Nathan Hoover launch a 3-pointer at the buzzer and exhaled as it bounced off the rim no good.

The final bucket was Bothwell's second game-winner this season and gave him an 18-point day  before a crowd of 6,096 at Bon Secours Wellness Arena. The sophomore point guard had 15 of those points in the second half. Also in the second half, Bothwell had two assists, two rebounds, two steals, one block, no turnovers and likely plenty of bumps and bruises from all the dives to the floor to make plays.

"It wasn't pretty, but that's a great Paladin win right there with the amount of adversity that we had to deal with. Clay (Mounce) picked up two (fouls) early and we didn't hit the shots from the perimeter that we're accustomed to hitting ... but the fight didn't dissolve," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "These guys battled, pressured and hung in there. ... Then we had the offensive second half that we're used to with 41 points. What a fun night. By no stretch was it easy and we knew it wouldn't be. Wofford played really, really hard and made some big shots. That's what they do.
"It was a great environment in there tonight. Six thousand people in downtown Greenville is just another step of things that people didn't think was possible for this program"

Bothwell's big day came in his first career start - even though that came about by accident. Entering Saturday, Furman (23-6, 13-3) was one of three teams in the country to have the same starting five in each game this season. An incorrect listing in the official scorebook led to Bothwell starting rather than Alex Hunter. While that wasn't a huge deal as Hunter checked in less than 90 seconds into the game, it was just the first of many things to go wrong for the Paladins in the opening half.

From an offensive shooting standpoint, Saturday's opening half was just as lousy as Furman's opening half in Spartanburg earlier this season. Each time, the Paladins made 8-of-25 (32 percent) field goals. After falling behind 15-4 to Chattanooga last Saturday and 13-5 at ETSU Wednesday, Furman trailed 14-7 nine minutes into Saturday's game.

The Paladins went on a 9-0 run to grab the lead with seven minutes left in the half before Wofford answered. The Terriers (16-13, 8-8) took a 33-26 lead into half after an incredible save of a loose ball by Trevor Stumpe. It appeared Wofford would hold for the final shot before Stumpe fired a 3-pointer with 16 seconds left that missed badly. As the ball bounced out of bounds near the corner, Stumpe got it and fired a behind-the-back pass to Messiah Jones for a layup to cap Furman's rough half.

Unlike the first meeting when the Paladins trailed 34-18 at the break, Furman was in shouting distance Saturday. That would not have been possible without Noah Gurley. Gurley scored 13 of his game-high 22 points in a first half in which he also had five rebounds, two steals and a block. After missing his last seven 3-pointers over the past two games, the 6-foot-8 sophomore went 3-for-3 from beyond the arc Saturday. His teammates were a combined 2-of-21.

"I thought Noah was aggressive all game. He had a look to him that said he wasn't going to be passive. That was our team's problem in the first half," Richey said. "We weren't catching it shot-ready and were too worried about if we're making shots or not. ... You just have to go lose yourself in the game and when the ball comes to you, have the confidence to step in there and shoot it. We just had so many dead catches in the first half. It was just bad offense.
"A sophomore post player having impacts like this in these big games is really fun to watch. Noah's got a beautiful shot and I love it when he's playing with that confidence. ... He's a nightmare now and he's going to be an ever bigger one in this league the next two years."

After getting whipped on the boards in the second half Wednesday at ETSU, it appeared that tune was going to repeat itself Saturday. There were nine rebounds in the first four minutes after halftime and Wofford claimed eight of them. Half of those were offensive which helped the Terriers stretch their lead to 11.

After Chevez Goodwin's layup made it 43-32 with 16:46 left, Wofford got two more offensive rebounds on its next possession before Alex Hunter stole the ball away. That started a fast break that ended with a three-point play by Jordan Lyons. That started a game-tying 11-0 run that was capped with a slam by Jalen Slawson, who got that break started with a steal.

While it got back in the game, Furman could never get back in front until Gurley's layup with 3:56 left. Wofford answered with another putback. An incredible steal and dunk by Slawson got Furman back on top and Bothwell followed with a steal and layup to give the Paladins their biggest lead in a game since last Saturday at 65-61 with 1:46 left.

"I picked up on their call," Slawson said of his deflection that led to his dunk. "Kind of like a cornerback in football. I let them think it was open and then jumped the route."
Richey added, "I'm not sure what's going to the the top 10 on SportsCenter, but there's not nine better than that."

That's when the clouds of notorious Paladin heartbreaker Storm Murphy rolled in. Murphy hit a jumper with 1:32 left then drained a 3-pointer 35 seconds later to give Wofford a 66-65 lead. While Furman lost the overall rebounding battle, it got the most important ones. After a missed jumper by Bothwell and a missed layup by Jordan Lyons, the loose balls went off the Terriers out of bounds each time. That set the stage for Bothwell's game-winner.

"If we don't recover those two loose balls ... we have to foul. With only two team fouls, the clock's going to be drained out (by the time you get to seven)," Richey said. "We finished the game on a beautiful pivot, which we practice every day. We drove Jordan left so they wouldn't help. They brought a double from the midline. Mike just kept his pivot alive, both defenders escaped and he turns and lays it up."

Furman, which had 11 steals, dominated points off turnovers by a 20-4 scoring margin. The Paladins made just one turnover over the final 21 minutes and finished with five for the game. In a one-point win, every point counts including Jaylon Pugh's only ones. With Tre Clark (head injury) sidelined, Richey had to go a little deeper on his bench and Pugh answered the bell on a game-tying 3-pointer with 6:16 left. While Pugh entered shooting 46.4 percent (13-of-28) from three, it was his first 3-pointer in Southern Conference play.

Lyons finished with 10 points, while Slawson had nine points and three steals.

"We're great shooters, but we know the game isn't just all threes. Sometimes they're not going to go in for us. We've just got to play on two feet and drive in strong," Bothwell said. "The big message at halftime was to just be confident and aggressive."

After a first-place battle at ETSU last Wednesday, Saturday's win sets up a second-place battle at UNC Greensboro (23-6, 13-3)  this Wednesday. 

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Shorthanded Paladins fall at ETSU

Jordan Lyons had 18 points before fouling out for the first time in his
career in Furman's 75-66 loss at ETSU. Photo courtesy of Furman
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. - On a night when Furman's best player fouled out and its most impactful player this month was knocked out, the Paladins dropped out of first place in the Southern Conference with a 75-66 loss at East Tennessee State.

The victory gives ETSU (24-4, 13-2) sole possession of first place in the SoCon with three games remaining as the teams split the season series for the sixth year in a row. The SoCon's golden goose in the NET rankings at No. 42 entering Wednesday should continue to rise and boost hopes of the league earning two bids to the NCAA Tournament should a different team win the SoCon Tournament. Furman (22-6, 12-3) falls into a tie for second place with UNC Greensboro, which rallied for an overtime win against Wofford Wednesday.

"It was a heck of an environment to get the chance to play in and obviously not the outcome we wanted, but we will learn from this," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "We've got three games left. This wasn't a destination game. It was a high-level college basketball game where both teams played as hard as they possibly could.
"I can walk out of here with a high head knowing our guys continued to fight. Every single one of them did dealing with as much adversity as we've faced all year in a game."

Jordan Lyons scored a game-high 18 points, but that was in just 31 minutes before fouling out. While the Paladins only led for a little more than two minutes Wednesday, it had a five-point advantage during Lyons' total time on the court. It's the first time in Lyons' 127-game collegiate career that he fouled out.

Tre Clark, who's provided an unbelievable defensive spark off the bench during Furman's seven-game winning streak entering Wednesday, played just eight minutes and remained in the locker room after halftime with a head injury.

"Jordan battled his absolute guts out tonight and put everything on the line. I've had the pleasure of coaching him for four years and never had to deal with him fouling out before, but it's what it was," Richey said. "It was tough, but I know this is only going to fuel him.
"Tre took two hits to the head and player safety is always first. As much as we need him on the court, his health is first. Our trainer made the decision to hold him out and I fully supported that."

While officials went to video review four different times to see if there was a flagrant foul - three times after fouls called against Furman and once on a jumpball tie-up - there was no review of any play involving Clark. Clark actually never drew a foul during his limited time on the court.

Isaiah Tisdale led four Bucs in double figures with 15 points to go along with eight rebounds and four assists. He also had four turnovers, but despite all of his activity in 38 minutes of action he only committed one foul. Conversely, he personally drew nine fouls called against the Paladins.

When Lyons picked up his second personal foul less than four minutes into the game, Furman led 4-3. After Lyons checked out, ETSU proceeded to outscore the Paladins 10-1 over the next two-and-a-half minutes. Richey called timeout, put Lyons back on the court and it immediately paid dividends.

Lyons hit a 3-pointer on the possession coming out of the timeout and that was a sign of things to come. Lyons played all but 45 seconds the rest of the half, didn't pick up another foul and scored 16 points. His 3-pointer on Furman's final possession of the half tied the game at 32-32, but Tray Boyd answered with a buzzer-beating three to give ETSU a 35-32 lead at the break.

After five ties in the first half, Furman could never pull even again. The Bucs could never pull away either though. When Clay Mounce slammed home an alley oop from Mike Bothwell, ETSU's lead was cut to 41-39 with 16:01 left. Tisdale answered with back-to-back 3-pointers. Mounce's jumper sliced the lead to 47-43 before the Bucs' ensuing possession encapsulated the second half.

Seven seconds into the possession, Tisdale drew a foul from Bothwell. One second later, Lyons was charged with his fourth foul with 13:45 left. That foul away from the ball came after the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Lyons collided with ETSU's 6-7, 235-pound Joe Hugley. Hugley missed a jumper, but Vonnie Patterson grabbed the offensive rebound. Tisdale missed a jumper, but Hugley got that offensive board and converted the putback.

Alex Hunter's 3-pointer with 5:16 left cut the lead to four, but ETSU answered when Hugley hit a layup and drew Lyons' fifth foul with 4:52 remaining. The Paladins never got the lead under five the rest of the way.

"It's definitely frustrating. No one ever wants to foul out, but that's the game. They don't always go your way," Lyons said. "I've never had an issue with foul trouble in my career, so I just need to watch it and learn from it.
"After I went out, I was proud of my teammates. They kept fighting. We can all use this experience to learn and get better."

With ETSU standout post player Jeromy Rodriguez in the lineup in the teams' first meeting in Greenville, Furman managed to win the rebounding battle. Noah Gurley had 10 points and 12 rebounds, while Clark had 10 points and seven boards in the Paladins' 65-56 win. With an injured Rodriguez in street clothes on the sidelines Wednesday, ETSU outrebounded Furman 41-24, including 27-9 in the second half. Of those 27 boards after halftime, 11 came on offense.

Gurley had 14 points Wednesday, but on 5-of-17 shooting and had three rebounds. Mounce had 12 points, six rebounds and two steals, while Bothwell finished with 11 points and three steals.

"Not having Tre Clark in the second half certainly affected that, but should it affect it to a 41-24 margin? No," Richey said. "Give them credit. They played hard, chased those balls and created extra possessions."

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Furman, ETSU set for first-place SoCon battle

Furman's Noah Gurley and ETSU's Bo Hodges battle for a loose ball
in the Paladins' 65-56 win in Greenville. Photo courtesy of Furman
Furman and East Tennessee State have been tied for first place in the Southern Conference throughout the month of February. That deadlock will come to an end Wednesday night when the teams battle in what's sure to be an electric atmosphere at Freedom Hall in Johnson City, Tenn. The winner will be all alone in first place with three games to go in the regular season.

If you're reading this, you probably already knew all that. Plenty of folks outside of the SoCon are getting the message too though as this game has caught the eye of college basketball pundits from ESPN, CBS Sports, etc. In ESPN's latest edition of Bracketology published Tuesday by Joe Lunardi, both Furman and ETSU are projected No. 12 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, with the Bucs being one of the "last four in."

"This is why we came here. These are the types of games we want to play in. This is when it gets fun," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "There's a couple of different ways to look at this. You can make it bigger than it needs to be in terms of pressure or you can look at it and say 'hey, this is what the program has risen to. It's Feb. 19 and we're playing for sole possession of first place.'
"We know what it's going to be like. It's one of the best environments in the league. It's going to be 6,500 people and it's going to be loud. (ETSU coach) Steve (Forbes) obviously does a great job in how he coaches them. ... Our guys are excited."

It will be a matchup of an ETSU team that hasn't lost this month against a Furman team that hasn't lost in a month. The Bucs (23-4, 12-2) have won five consecutive games since a stunning 71-55 home loss to Mercer on Jan. 29. The Paladins (22-5, 12-2) have seven straight wins since a 66-52 loss at Wofford on Jan. 17. Only the Big 12 (Kansas and Baylor) can boast two other 22-win teams in its conference.

ETSU enters ranked No. 2 in the latest College Insider Mid-Major Top 25 and No. 42 in the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) ranking. Furman is eighth in the Mid-Major and No. 71 in the NET. In addition to everything else on the line SoCon-wise, Wednesday also provides the Paladins a chance to boost it's NCAA at-large resume. The Bucs' resume is bolstered by an 11-point win at LSU in December. That same month, a series of unfortunate events robbed Furman of a huge boost to its resume in an three-point overtime loss at Auburn.

When the teams met in Greenville on Jan. 4, the Paladins limited ETSU to 5-of-23 shooting from three in a 65-56 win. The Bucs' rebounding machine, Jeromy Rodriguez, has been out lately due to injury. He played that day, but Furman still outrebounded ETSU 41-28. It was just one of two times in SoCon play that the Paladins have won the battle on the boards. The second time came in Saturday's 58-53 win over Chattanooga.

Furman will be trying to sweep the season series from the Bucs for the first time in 33 years. There's been no sweep by either team since ETSU returned to the SoCon five years ago. The Bucs were positioned for one two years ago after a last second one-point win in Greenville early that season, but the Paladins spoiled ETSU's Senior Day with a three-point win in the regular season finale.

So Jordan Lyons, Clay Mounce and Alex Hunter know what it's like to win on the Bucs' home court, not that any previous meetings will mean much when the ball tips off Wednesday.

"I think every game stands on its own two feet," Richey said. "I think the one thing that's unique here is that they're playing a lot different with the absence of Rodriguez. They're playing a lot more with four guards.
"It's the same type of East Tennessee toughness in terms of how they guard you and the pressure they're going to bring. Offensively, they're going to get downhill on you and get out in transition like they always do. In the halfcourt, they're really going to test your drive defense. Rebounding well will be critical for us to do again."

While Wednesday's matchup is huge for all the obvious reasons, the winner won't be able to put things on cruise control the rest of the way. Furman's next two are against the only teams to beat the Paladins the first time through the league. Furman plays Wofford at The Well on Saturday before traveling to UNC Greensboro next Wednesday. ETSU will travel to a Wofford team it only beat 49-48 at home next Wednesday before hosting a potent Western Carolina team in next Saturday's regular season finale.

Still, Wednesday's winner will be in the driver's seat for the No. 1 seed for the SoCon Tournament in Asheville. That seed may be more coveted than ever this year as there appears to be three distinct groups in the league - a top three (Furman, ETSU, UNCG), a dangerous bunch in the middle (Western Carolina, Wofford, Chattanooga, Mercer) and a bottom three (Samford, VMI, Citadel).

The No. 1 seed would be assured of playing one of the bottom three in the SoCon quarterfinals and - with a win - not playing one of the top three in the semifinals.

While ETSU will no doubt have a rowdy home court advantage, Furman has tried to ensure some purple will mix in the planned "gold out." The school has provided $15 deal for students that covers a ticket, a meal and a bus ride to the game.

"It beats these trips four or five years ago when nobody even knew we were out of town," Richey said. "Progress is always great. We're just always trying to figure out ways to move the program forward.
"We want to continue to help Furman, our city and our league in any way we can. It's nice to see people get excited about what's going on."

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Clark, defense power Paladins past Mocs

Tre Clark tracks down a loose ball near the Furman sideline during the
Paladins' 58-53 win over Chattanooga Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman
Last Saturday, Chattanooga visited the Upstate and shot 60 percent from the floor in an 84-77 win at Wofford. This Saturday's trip to the Upstate could not have been more different. Furman limited the Mocs to 30.4 percent shooting in a 58-53 win before 2,430 fans at Timmons Arena. It was the lowest shooting percentage allowed by the Paladins this season, and Chattanooga's lowest this season.

In a matchup of the top two shooting teams - from the floor and from three - during Southern Conference play, a defensive battle broke out. The Paladins (22-5, 12-2) won their seventh consecutive game to stay tied with ETSU atop the SoCon standings entering their huge game in Johnson City Wednesday. A big part of Saturday's win was allowing just 6-of-29 (20.7 percent) 3-pointers. The Mocs (16-11, 7-7) entered shooting a SoCon-best 37.5 percent from three in league play.

Furman, which was shooting 36.6 percent from beyond the arc in SoCon play, found a way to win despite making just 3-of-18 (16.7 percent). It's the second time this season the Paladins were held to three made 3-pointers and they won both games. They also found a way to win Saturday with Jordan Lyons, Clay Mounce and Alex Hunter going a combined 3-of-13 from the floor.

"It was wild. You think you're getting a shootout and then it becomes just an absolute defensive battle," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "Credit to Chattanooga. ... I thought both teams played incredibly hard. ... Fortunate for us, just like we've done so many times this year, we find a way to scrap it out late.
"What you see in championship-level teams is that you've got to figure it out. You're not always going to go out there and hit every shot or always have great rhythm on offense. ... Tonight we won the game on the defensive end of the floor. What you see out of a mature team is we didn't let the 3-for-18 (from three) affect the intensity we were guarding at."

With the backcourt held in check by an impressive defensive effort by Chattanooga, the frontcourt came through. Noah Gurley had a team-high 14 points, while Jalen Slawson scored 13 and helped Furman claim the rebounding battle (36-35) in a game for the first time since the win over ETSU on Jan. 4.

But the duo that provided the spark for Furman on Saturday came off the bench. Mike Bothwell had 12 points and four assists, while Tre Clark continued in his bid to find out if a backup can win the SoCon's Defensive Player of the Year award. Clark matched his career-high with nine rebounds, and also had six points, three (of Furman's five) steals, two assists and a block with no turnovers in 24 minutes. Not found in the boxscore, but also big were Clark's 10 deflections.

"All of our guys were impactful in different ways, but again, TC might have been the most impactful," Richey said. "Mike ignited us offensively because of his ability to get the ball in the paint and make plays off penetration. Tre ignited us defensively just with his grit and toughness."

That spark was needed early on. Furman had three turnovers in the first four-and-a-half minutes and Chattanooga had three 3-pointers in the first seven minutes when Matt Ryan hit one with 13:25 left. That gave the Mocs a 13-4 lead and forced a timeout by Richey.

The Paladins got the message. Coming out of the timeout, Bothwell lobbed a pass to Slawson who threw down a dunk that finally gave the packed house something to get fired up about. That started a run, albeit a methodical one. As Chattanooga missed shot after shot, Furman grinded its way out of the hole.

Lyons' only bucket of the first half came when Clark made an incredible bounce pass through traffic to him for a layup. It gave Furman a 19-18 lead with 1:54 left in the half and it was a lead that was never relinquished. Moments later, Clark found an open Mounce for his lone field goal and the Paladins' first made 3-pointer with 24 seconds left in the half. That staked Furman to a 24-18 lead as it outscored the Mocs 20-5 over the final 13:24 of the half.

"We were down 13-4 after giving up some threes on pure miscommunication," Gurley said. "We started communicating, kept our defense tight, came out with intensity and Tre Clark provided the spark. He makes teams so uncomfortable on offense."

The low-scoring half wasn't as much a result of poor offense as it was very crisp defense, that was also done cleanly. Furman was called for two fouls in the first half, while Chattanooga had three.

As often seems to be the case in basketball, teams that play a clean opening half magically start "fouling" in the second half and Saturday was no exception. There were eight combined fouls in the first four-and-a-half minutes of the second half. The problem for Furman was they were on the same guys, including three on Lyons with 18:24 left.

The Paladins navigated their way through the half leading by as many as 10 while Lyons, Gurley and Clark were in serious foul trouble. Furman led 48-42 with 3:49 left went Clark was eliminated on a controversial fifth foul. The Paladins, who have found so many different ways to win all season, now had to find a way to win without one of its most vitally important players over the last few games.

Furman pushed the lead to nine with 1:01 left on a pair of free throws by Hunter and held on as Ryan scored eight points over the final 52 seconds for Chattanooga.

Ryan, a Notre Dame transfer who leads the Mocs in scoring this season, finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds, but was just 4-of-13 from the floor. Second leading scorer David Jean-Baptiste (12.8 points per game) was held to five points on 2-of-14 shooting. Ramon Vila, who was averaging 15.4 points over his last five games, had eight points on 4-of-7 shooting.

"Those guys are talented. They've got three high major transfers on that roster," Richey said. "It wasn't our prettiest game of the year by any stretch, but I do think it might have been one of our best defensive performances."

Friday, February 14, 2020

Bertrand hurls Paladins to opening day win

John Michael Bertrand allowed one run on two hits in six innings in
Furman's 7-5 win over La Salle Friday. Photo courtesy of Furman
During the course of the 2019 baseball season, Furman's John Michael Bertrand pitched himself up the ladder into the Friday night starter position. Based on Friday's 2020 season opener, he has no plans of giving it up.

Bertrand pitched perhaps the finest game of his career as the Paladins defeated La Salle, 7-5, at Latham Stadium. Bertrand (1-0) allowed one run on two hits in six innings and had no walks and seven strikeouts. Of his 74 pitches, 54 were strikes. After allowing a leadoff home run in the second inning, the redshirt junior left-hander retired the final 15 batters he faced.

"What a performance. That's probably the best I've ever seen him," Furman coach Brett Harker said. "Everything that happened today, he deserves it. You can compliment him because you know he's just going to work that much harder to get better.
"Honestly, the home run was probably the best thing to happen to him because it ticked him off a little. That was a freshman who took a really good swing on him. He was that much more sharp the rest of the way."

La Salle starter Colin Scanlon was matching his fellow left-hander pitch-for-pitch before his own error opened the door for Furman in the fifth. With two outs, No. 9 hitter Aidan Healy delivered a two-run double to give the Paladins a 2-1 lead. It was the first collegiate hit for the freshman who was a last-minute addition to the lineup when fellow freshman Eli Weisner was scratched with an arm injury.

Jordan Starkes followed by roping a single to center to score Healy. Furman put up three more runs in the sixth, highlighted by RBI-singles from Dax Roper and Banks Griffith.

"We had a freshman replace another freshman and Healy made a huge play (banging into the wall on a catch in right field) in the ninth and got the big hit to break things open," Harker said. "You got to see a little bit of everything today. ... We're going to build off tonight."

The Explorers rallied a bit against the Furman bullpen with four runs on eight hits over the last three innings. However, Rob Hughes and Dominic Pianto didn't sustain further damage by throwing strikes. The trio of Paladins who pitched Wednesday combined for 12 strikeouts and no walks.

In his first game back after missing all of the 2019 season with an injury, senior Jake Crawford went 2-for-4. He had the Paladins' first hit - an opposite field single in the second, and their last hit - an RBI-single in the eighth.

"That kid's been through so much. Getting our first hit of the season is so fitting for Jake," Harker said. "That kid's not just the face of Furman baseball, he's the face of Furman. He's going to be a doctor and he's done everything on the baseball field."

Game two of the three-game series is scheduled for Saturday at 1 p.m.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Mounce helps Paladins roll over Samford

Clay Mounce had a season-high 25 points in Furman's 86-71
win at Samford Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman
Clay Mounce scored a season-high 25 points and Furman connected on 14-of-26 3-pointers as the Paladins rolled to an 86-71 win at Samford Wednesday night. It's the sixth consecutive win for Furman (21-5, 11-2), which remains tied atop the Southern Conference standings with ETSU.

So everything was fine and dandy Wednesday, right? Well ...

A crucial part of the level Furman's worked to reach during this historic run of terrific basketball the past few years is attention to detail - no matter the score or who's on the floor. A week after being outscored 9-3 over the final 3:15 of a blowout win against Mercer, the Paladins were outscored 12-2 over the final 3:58 Wednesday. In a postgame interview with the Furman Radio Network, Furman coach Bob Richey expressed the bad taste the final bite of the game left.

"We've got to grow there. This is too many games where we're trying to build depth ... and then leads just start to collapse. We play no defense and just fire up the first shot we see," Richey said. "If you're going to wear that jersey, there's a standard we're going to play at. It doesn't matter when your minutes are, you're going to play to a certain standard.
"It's frustrating because we've got seven guys who are absolutely laying it all down right now. They're doing whatever they can for this program. We need one more to just step up down this stretch run. ... One more guy that we know is ready to play the brand of Furman basketball that's required to wear that jersey on the court."

The fact that the Paladins led 84-59 with 3:59 left on Mounce's fifth 3-pointer is a testament to how well they played in the second half following a first half that was ugly at times. After falling behind 5-0, Furman went on a 13-0 run to take a lead it never relinquished. The Paladins led by as many as 13 before taking a 42-35 lead into the break.

The ugly parts of the opening half appeared to carry over in the first four minutes of the second half when the teams combined for seven turnovers. Five of those belonged to Samford though, and the last two led to a 3-pointer by Noah Gurley and a layup by Mike Bothwell to push the lead to 11.

With 14:40 left, Jalen Slawson committed Furman's 10th turnover but made up for it in a big way. After the Bulldogs' Jason Tatum stole the ball from him, Slawson raced down the court to block Tatum's shot. Alex Hunter gathered the rebound and fired a pass to Jordan Lyons, who drained a 3-pointer. That ignited a 10-2 run over the next two-and-a-half minutes as Furman took a commanding 62-43 lead. Samford never got within 15 the rest of the way and Furman had only three turnovers after that one with 14:40 left.

Furman shot 51.7 percent from the floor and had 23 assists out of 31 field goals. The Paladins held Samford to 37.9 percent shooting in the second half, including 0-of-4 from three. The Bulldogs (8-19, 2-11) had 20 turnovers and Furman enjoyed a 35-7 advantage in points off them. While Wednesday marked Samford's 11th consecutive loss, Furman joined Mercer as the only visitors to win there by more than eight points this season.

"In the first half, we were trying to do too much with the dribble. We didn't have the flow or tempo we like to have on offense," Richey said. "We did a better job of that in the second half.
"I think it was another 30-deflection night for us. We were at 28 without about four of five minutes to play. That would give us two 30-deflection games out of the last three after not having one all year. ... I'm proud of this group and how hard they're playing right now. ... I still feel like our best game's still ahead of us."

Mounce was one of five Paladins in double figures. Mike Bothwell had 15 points and four assists off the bench, while Lyons had 14 points, three assists and no turnovers. Gurley and Hunter had 12 points apiece and Hunter also had seven assists and two steals. Slawson finished with six points, four rebounds, three assists, three steals and three blocks.

"Mounce was great tonight, but Tre Clark again ... it's like an X-factor. He's a different piece than what we have," Richey said. "He had two points and six rebounds tonight, so it's 'why is coach talking about him?' Well, if you go to the last column in plus and minus for what the score was when he was on the floor, he's at plus-21. That's second highest on our team behind Jordan, who was at plus-31 which is outstanding.
"You may not see it in the boxscore, but Tre's toughness and tenacity is translating."

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Lyons, Hunter help Paladins sweep Western

Alex Hunter scored a career-high 21 points in Furman's 82-73
win at Western Carolina Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman
CULLOWHEE, N.C. - On a historical day for the Furman men's basketball program Saturday, the most important thing that happened was this: the Paladins once again showed they can take a different route to end up at the same desired destination of victory.

After a suffocating defensive effort Wednesday to snap Mercer's six-game winning streak, Furman allowed a season-high 14 3-pointers on Saturday at Western Carolina. However, Jordan Lyons rang up 33 points and Alex Hunter scored a career-high 21 as the Paladins defeated the Catamounts, 82-73. Furman (20-5, 10-2 Southern Conference) remains tied for first place in the league with ETSU, which won at Mercer Saturday.

The win gives Furman at least 20 in a season for the fourth consecutive year, a feat never before accomplished in school history. At 25 games in, the Paladins reached the 20-win mark faster than any other team in school history. The victory also gave Furman a record of 91-35 over the last four years. That makes Lyons the winningest player in school history one season after Andrew Brown and Matt Rafferty were the first Paladins to reach 90 wins.

"It's more special than any other honor or achievement you can have. This is a growth program. We've prided ourselves on player development and getting better every single year and we've done that," said Lyons, who added to his career record for 3-pointers set Wednesday by hitting 4-of-7 on Saturday.
"It's me right now but next year, Alex, Clay (Mounce) and Tre (Clark) are going to break it. In the next years, it will continue to be broken. That's the level this program has reached. I'm just really blessed to be a part of it."

Lyons scored 14 of Furman's first 17 points. While the Paladins held an eight-point lead at that point, those early ones proved necessary as the game was a shootout for much of the day. The senior later scored six of the Paladins' final nine points to seal the win.

"Jordan was going to win today. Let's just call it what it is," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "He played like somebody that was saying, 'you guys jump on my back and we're going to go figure this thing out.'
"Usually when you have someone that plays with that much confidence, people rally behind him and I think Alex has really cut loose these past two games. When those two are playing like that together, they're really, really hard to guard."

In Furman's 83-79 win over Western in Greenville earlier this season, Catamount big man Carlos Dotson put up 21 points on 10-of-14 shooting. On Saturday, the Paladins seemed bound and determined to not let the former Dorman High standout beat them. While Dotson had 12 rebounds and four assists, he had nine points on just 3-of-5 shooting.

For awhile, it appeared that Onno Steger was going to be the Catamount to beat Furman as he and Lyons traded 3-pointers early. At the 8:45 mark of the first half, Western held a 24-23 lead and the teams were a combined 13-of-18 on 3-pointers and 3-of-16 on 2-pointers.

The Catamounts led 30-25 with less than seven minutes left in the first half when Lyons' jumper started a 12-0 run over the next five minutes. Steger ended Western's drought when he converted a four-point play.

With 10:44 left to play, Steger hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 57. That was his seventh 3-pointer of the game and gave him 24 points, but he didn't scratch in the scoring category again. The Catamounts were 13-of-21 from three after Steger's last make, but they went just 1-for-8 from beyond the arc the rest of the way.

"When two teams combine for 26 made threes, it's going to come down to the team that can just string together some stops and create some separation," Richey said. "I thought our group did that late.
"It was a hard-fought game both ways as we knew it would be. For our team to compete like that, especially against Dotson after what he did to us in Greenville ... Holding him to single digits was huge."

After a 20-point opening half, the looks weren't as open for Lyons in the second half but he didn't press and the shots he found were big. Dynamic Western point guard Mason Faulkner converted a three-point play to tie the game at 60 with 8:25 left before Lyons answered with a jumper that gave Furman the lead for good. Hunter and Lyons hit 3-pointers and Gurley converted a tough shot as he was fouled to make it an eight-point lead with five minutes left.

Faulkner sank a pair of free throws to cut Furman's lead to 73-71 with 2:16 left, but Lyons scored the next five points to help put the game away.

Furman finished 12-of-25 from three, led by Hunter who matched a career-high hitting 5-of-7. For the week, Hunter made 8-of-12 3-pointers and had 30 points, seven assists, six rebounds, three steals and two turnovers. Gurley finished with 11 points Saturday and Clay Mounce had eight points, eight rebounds and four assists. While Tre Clark only had four points in  22 minutes off the bench, he drew five fouls, had two steals and the Paladins outscored Western by 18 during his time on the court.

"Honestly, it just been my teammates and coaches instilling me with that confidence and it's overflowing. I feel like I'm playing the best I have since I've been here," Hunter said. "I've been feeling good and we've been winning. That brings the most joy."

Friday, February 7, 2020

Signees help boost Furman's depth at receiver

Furman wide receiver Ryan DeLuca (83) is the lone rising senior at a
position that's gotten deeper this offseason. Photo courtesy of Furman
When Furman's 2019 football season came to an end, wide receiver was perhaps the most barren spot on the depth chart. A position that wasn't the deepest to begin with was losing three seniors, including the leading receiver in school history in Thomas Gordon.

A little more than two months later, depth at that position has done a 180. While the Paladins signed no receivers in the the first signing day period back in December, they added one via transfer in January and added two more on Wednesday's traditional signing day.

Noah Henderson, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound Nashville native, transferred in from Charlotte. As a freshman last season, he appeared in all 12 games for the 49ers and caught eight passes for 65 yards. Henderson played for Furman Hall of Famer Ingle Martin at Christ (Tenn.) Presbyterian Academy in high school and was a first-team all-state performer. He caught 72 passes for 1,215 yards and 11 touchdowns there in 2018 to help his team go 14-0 and capture the Division II-2A state championship.

Henderson evidently started a trend of Tennessee receivers joining the program as Knoxville natives Kelton Gunn (5-10, 170) and Bailor Hughes (5-11, 203) signed on Wednesday. At Class 6A Hardin Valley, Gunn was a running back and rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season. Hughes did a little bit of everything at Class 5A Powell High, where he was a team captain each of the last three seasons and where he also ran the 100m and 400m in track. In his football career, Hughes had 1,275 rushing yards, 1,113 receiving yards, 68 tackles, nine interceptions and 26 touchdowns.

"Going into this recruiting class, receiver was one of the top priorities and I think it came out as a great strength really," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "We're really pleased with how that turned out. Bailor Hughes and Kelton Gunn bring a little different dimension, and Henderson is a big, fast kid.
"We may see a few more three-wide receiver sets on the field. We haven't had enough guys to do those."

In addition to the newest Paladins, the receiver position will have the return of senior Ryan DeLuca, who's caught four touchdowns each of the past two seasons. Dejuan Bell and Luke Shiflett, who each redshirted in 2019, also return.

"Luke's going to be a little limited this spring coming back from the (torn) labrum," Hendrix said. "He's going to be going through things, but he's not going to be out there getting tackled.
"Last August, I remember telling (receivers coach) Brian (Bratton), 'let's don't kill Thomas Gordon,' by just wearing him out because we didn't have the numbers. I'm pretty excited about that group now with who we have and who we've got coming in."

Furman had two more signees on Wednesday in defensive end Luke Clark (6-3, 224), of Louisville, and long snapper Julian Ashby (6-2, 185), of Lilburn, Ga. Clark had 99 tackles, including 28 for loss and 12 sacks to help South Oldham (Ky.) High go 11-2. At the first signing day in December, Hendrix said he'd like to sign another defensive lineman and landing Clark also helps expand the Paladins' recruiting footprint.

Ashby, who scored 1530 on the SAT, handled snapping duties for 39 games at Parkview (Ga.) High and chose Furman over Duke. He could fill a void immediately following the graduation of four-year starter Evan Vaughn.

"Along with the 13 guys we signed early, I feel like we addressed our needs. ... Our staff did a great job. Depth-wise, we're in as good as a position as we've been in since I've been here," Hendrix said. "We had a lot of guys that had a lot of opportunities (to sign) at a lot of great schools. ... I think the strength of our school and strength and tradition of our football program helped us win out.
"We've finally got this thing to where we've got manageable numbers each year. If we we can stay in that 15-17 range in a class, that's ideal for us. We don't want to be replacing 24 guys. That's a real challenge to find that many kids that can play and do the academics here."

Spring practice set to begin
This year's spring practice schedule opens Saturday at 8 a.m. at Paladin Stadium. There will be a total of 15 practices, with the annual Purple-White scrimmage tentatively scheduled for Feb. 29 at noon.

Spring practice was slightly delayed as the coaching staff was shuffled following the departures of cornerbacks coach Rod Ojong to Georgia, and defensive line coach Josh Miller to Coastal Carolina. On Friday, Chad Byers was announced as Furman's new outside linebackers coach while Clay Mazza was introduced as the new director of football operations.

Byers was a graduate assistant linebackers coach at Marshall last season and was a defensive quality control coach at Furman in 2015. Mazza has spent the past five seasons at Stetson, where he coached tight ends and special teams as was director of football operations the past two years.

"(Former safeties coach) Corico Wright's going to take over the whole secondary now and (defensive coordinator) Duane (Vaughn) is going to move back and help a little bit back there," Hendrix said. "He can help wherever needed."

The hiring of a new defensive line coach should be officially announced in the coming weeks.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Intense defense helps Paladins thump Mercer

Jordan Lyons broke the school record for career 3-pointers and tied the record
for career wins in Furman's 79-57 win over Mercer. Photo courtesy of Furman
On a night of personal achievement for Jordan Lyons Wednesday, he led a team-wide defensive effort that cooled off the hottest team in the Southern Conference and downright froze perhaps the league's hottest shooter.

Furman became the first SoCon team to hold Mercer below 60 points this season in a 79-57 rout at Timmons Arena that snapped the Bears' six-game winning streak. In addition to having the league's longest winning streak, Mercer also entered as the SoCon's top-ranked team in field goal percentage (49.6) and three-point percentage (38.3). On Wednesday, Furman limited the Bears to 33.3 percent shooting (10-of-30 each half), including 25.9 percent on 3-pointers.

Meanwhile, Furman (19-5, 9-2) had five players in double figures and another with nine points as it shot 57.1 percent from the floor, including 65 percent (13-of-20) in the second half. The victory was the 90th of Lyons' Paladin career, pulling him even with Matt Rafferty and Andrew Brown as the winningest players in school history.

"We were able to impose our will on the defensive side of the ball and that's where it always starts for us. When we can bring pressure with tight gaps and really shrink the floor and make it difficult for teams to get into their actions, that's when we're at our best," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "About seven minutes into the game, you could really start to feel it.
"It was a 31-deflection night, which is a season high for us. Tre Clark had 10 of them. All eight of our players who played meaningful minutes tonight all contributed in a big way."

During this current historic era of Furman basketball, a trademark of its success has been the ability to completely shut down an opponents' leading scorer. That happened when Furman and Mercer (12-12, 6-5) met earlier this year in Macon, Ga. as Djordje Dimitrijevic was held to what's turned out to be a season-low five points on 1-of-8 shooting from the floor.

But Furman's 64-62 win that night was way back on Dec. 20. In his eight SoCon games since then and prior to Wednesday, Dimitrijevic averaged 24 points per game and made 27-of-56 3-pointers (48.2 percent).

Surely the Paladins couldn't hold him to five points again and they didn't. Instead, he scored six. After hitting a jumper on Mercer's opening possession 35 seconds into the game, Dimitrijevic's only other bucket came 10 shots later when he banked in a 3-pointer. All that did was cut Furman's lead to 50-34 with 14:57 left to play, and he didn't attempt another shot after the 10:48 mark. Dimitrijevic was 2-of-13 for the night, including 1-of-9 from three.

"We knew Mercer was coming in hot and we knew we had to be locked in from the minute the ball tipped up," Lyons said. "I think it was one of our best defensive performances of the year."

After Dimitrijevic's opening bucket, Furman scored the next eight points before Mercer responded with a 14-3 run. That's when perhaps the Paladins' finest defensive display of the season suddenly started to kick in.

A putback by Clark gave Furman a lead it never relinquished at 20-19 with 8:03 left in the first half. Alex Hunter made a steal three seconds later and fired to Lyons, who nailed a 3-pointer. A block by Noah Gurley led to another Lyons' 3-pointer. On the Paladins' next possession, Lyons sank yet another three. It not only pushed the Paladins' lead to 10, it also pushed Lyons past Eric Webb as the school's all-time leader in 3-pointers with his 274th.

"It's really special. I thank the Lord for being blessed with the abilities that I've been able to utilize my entire life," Lyons said. "This record is never just going to be about me. There's no way possible I could've done it without the people in my life like the Peachtree City (Ga.) community back home and everybody who's involved with this program - all the coaches I've had and current coaches, all the former teammates and current teammates.
"Everyone believes in me and it's been that way since I came in as a freshman. That's something that's really special about this place. ... I'll forever be indebted to this program and this university."

From the 8:03 mark to the 4:44 mark of the first half, Furman outscored Mercer 16-0 to help the Paladins take a 39-24 lead into halftime. It was the Bears' lowest output in any half of SoCon play. There was no let up after half for Furman as it never led by fewer than 15 and led by as many as 29.

While Furman held Dimitrijevic down in the first meeting, the Bears' 6-foot-11 Maciej Bender had a season-high 19 points and 10 rebounds that night. It was a different story on Wednesday, as he had 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting, eight rebounds and four turnovers.

"The whole team had a 'nothing easy' mindset. Down in Macon, we were leaving the paint open and he was just scoring easy dunks and off easy rolls (to the basket)," Gurley said. "It was a five-man effort, but (Jalen) Slaw(son) really stepped up and accepted that challenge."

Gurley finished with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting to lead Furman. Lyons and Slawson each scored 13 points, while Clay Mounce had 12 points and six rebounds. Mike Bothwell had 10 points, five assists, two steals and no turnovers in 22 minutes off the bench, and Hunter finished with nine points, five assists, two steals and one turnover.

Furman overcame a 12-of-24 night at the foul line, as well as getting outrebounded 41-29. Mercer pulled down 20 offensive rebounds, but only managed to score 11 second-chance points off those.

"In defense of our guys, Mercer missed 40 shots. Now letting them go get 20 of those misses isn't good, but I did see the effort to go and impact the second shot," Richey said. "They're very efficient in their offense, so it wasn't like we just stymied a bad offense. ... It all starts with our defensive intensity. That's what we've got to continue to buy into.
"It's hard to play that way, but you embrace that's who you are. ... When you stick to that, we're really hard to score against."

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Top seed in SoCon could be as valuable as ever

Furman coach Bob Richey
Photo courtesy of Furman
We're past the midway point of the Southern Conference basketball season. When SoCon teams return to the court Wednesday, it will begin a final stretch of two games a week for the rest of February leading into the SoCon Tournament the first weekend of March.

If the regular season ended Tuesday, Furman would have the No. 1 seed thanks to its head-to-head win against ETSU at Timmons Arena. This season, that top seed could prove to be as valuable an asset as ever before.

A look at the standings indicates the "big four" are still the big four. Furman (18-5) and ETSU (19-4) are tied for first place at 8-2, while UNC Greensboro (17-6) and Wofford (15-8) are tied for third at 7-3. These are the only four who have each won at least 10 games at home this season and Wofford is the only SoCon team who hasn't suffered a home loss in league play (5-0). Meanwhile, Furman and UNCG are two of 19 Division I teams that have won at least seven true road games.

Last season, those four teams went a combined 47-1 against the rest of the league. This season, it's a different story as the middle of the pack have proved to be quite formidable. Western Carolina (14-7) and Mercer (12-11) are tied for fifth at 6-4 in the SoCon, while Chattanooga (14-9) is seventh at 5-5. After quite a few injuries early on, Mercer is currently the hottest team in the league. The Bears will come to Furman on Wednesday riding a six-game winning streak.

While the Paladins will have had a week off to prepare, it remains to be seen whether that will be a good thing or a bad thing. Coach Bob Richey said he would've preferred to keep playing this past weekend, but it did provide a final long break before the final stretch of the season.

"It's the grind of the season and everybody's tired right now," Richey said after Furman's win over VMI last Wednesday. "We've got to rest our bodies and take advantage of the time (off), but we've also got to stay sharp. It's a fine line.
"This is the first gap of the schedule since Christmas and we've got to use it to improve. It's an opportunity for us to get better, if we have the right attitude at practice. ... There are some bolts that need to be tightened."

While Samford (8-16, 2-8), VMI (6-17, 1-9) and The Citadel (6-17, 0-10) are the only SoCon teams with losing records, that haven't exactly rolled over in league play. Samford has a five-point loss to Wofford and seven-point loss to UNCG. VMI lost by six at ETSU and gave Furman all it could handle last week in Greenville before falling 74-72 in overtime. The Citadel had a two-point loss at Wofford, a four-point loss to Western Carolina and a five-point loss at Mercer this past Saturday.

"I don't know if the league is better than it was last year, but I know it's way more balanced," Richey said. "There are dang good coaches in this league and there's a lot of good players.
"The trick in February is going to be who shows up every single night to play as hard as they can play and play to their identity. And then who can get teams out of their identity and catch somebody slipping."

While it seems any team can challenge any other in the SoCon, there's does seem to be a clear line in the sand between the top seven and bottom three teams this year, making that No. 1 seed even more important than usual. That top seed will face either the eighth or ninth seed in the quarterfinal round in Asheville.

For the Paladins to maintain its current position as that top seed, they will probably have to win all the games they should be favored in - all four remaining home games and their game at Samford. Furman will also likely have to win at least one on the road against either ETSU, UNCG or Western Carolina. If it can be only one of those three, UNCG might be the one to get as a Spartans' win would give them the season sweep and a tiebreaker advantage over the Paladins.

Now matter how it all shakes out, it should be an entertaining ride through February to what should be a whale of a tournament in Asheville.

"We've got to get better. We're in the hunt and we're going to be in the hunt. This is a championship-level group. I love this team, but it's going to hard. There's going to be battles," Richey said. "You can't sit there and try to figure out 'what game do we have to be our best.' When you've got to play a game in the Southern Conference, you'd better show up and be ready to be your best because if you don't, you're going to get beat. ... It doesn't matter who you're playing.
"I don't think the league gets the credit it deserves  This is big time ball, every single night."