|Tre Clark tracks down a loose ball near the Furman sideline during the|
Paladins' 58-53 win over Chattanooga Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman
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."