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."

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