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."

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