|Noah Gurley had 23 points in Furman's 83-80 win|
over Mercer Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman
It's not how you start, it's how you finish.
Furman did a whole lot right for the first 35 minutes of its game against Mercer Saturday afternoon at Timmons Arena. So much so that it withstood being on the wrong end of a 20-7 run to end the game. Clay Mounce and Noah Gurley combined for 50 points as the Paladins held on for an 83-80 victory.
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy. I think we thought there for a second that it was going to get easy, but a team that well coached and with that much age isn't just going to quit," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "I thought up until the last five or six minutes, we played pretty well. Noah Gurley was phenomenal and Clay Mounce was incredible.
"Our defensive energy, particularly in that main chunk of the game was excellent. We had 27 deflections - 17 in the first half."
Mounce's layup with 5:48 left pushed Furman's lead to 76-60. That lead was whittled to four before Mounce hit a pair of free throws with 29 seconds to make it 83-77. Furman (8-3, 2-0 Southern Conference) then played its best defensive set in quite some time as the Bears could not get an open look before a bail out foul call with eight seconds left.
Mercer's Felipe Haase made the first free throw and missed the second, but the Bears' James Glisson III got the rebound and laid it in with seven seconds left to cut the lead to 83-80. Less than a second later, Furman's Mike Bothwell missed the front end of a 1-and-1 free throw. Haase grabbed the rebound, dribbled down and fired up a last-second three-point prayer. It bounced off no good as the Paladins breathed a sigh of relief.
"Overall, I'm happy but not real satisfied with the finish," Richey said. "We just had a lot of details start to unravel. ... It just got a little frantic there. Fortunately, we closed it out. There are times when that stuff can cost you a game. We've got to continue to work for a 40-minute performance and I know we'll get there."
A thoroughly entertaining first half featured quick spurts by both teams. Mercer (7-3, 0-2) reeled off a 10-0 run in 1:51 to take a 16-9 lead and force a Furman timeout. Out of the timeout, the Paladins responded with a 7-0 run in 2:01. The game remained tight throughout the first half until Furman ended it with a 7-0 run over the final 57 seconds to take a 44-34 lead into the break.
The energetic opening half was highlighted by a pair of excellent defensive plays by Bothwell. After Mounce hit a tough, turn-around shot, Bothwell deflected the inbounds pass and got to it along the sideline. Bothwell passed to Colin Kenney, who found Mounce for a layup to push Furman's lead to 26-19 and force a Mercer timeout. Later in the half, Bothwell bounced the inbounds pass off the leg of a Bear. The ball sailed out of bounds giving Bothwell one of his five steals in the first half. Bothwell's previous career high for an entire game was four steals.
"That (end of the first half run) was huge. ... It was just based off defensive activity," Richey said. "We're more than capable. We know we can sit down and guard. It's a matter of us just buying into doing it every single possession of the game.
"Mike's defense has improved a lot. ... I think the defense that Mike Bothwell and Alex Hunter are playing on the perimeter is exceptional. I'm thankful for Mike wanting to be a defensive stopper because he's causing some problems (for opponents) out on the perimeter."
Getting that double-digit lead before half gave the Paladins momentum and it carried over into the second half. Bothwell turned his sixth steal of the game into a dunk to push the lead to 15 at the 17:58 mark. Even though he was knocked to the ground with no foul called, Jalen Slawson converted a dunk with 12:03 left to give Furman its biggest lead at 64-46.
Mounce finished with a career-high 27 points, six rebounds, two steals and two blocks with no turnover and one foul. Gurley had 23 points, four rebounds, three assists and three steals, while Bothwell finished with 15 points, five rebounds, five assists and the six steals. Furman had 14 steals as a team, it's most since getting 14 in a win against UNC Asheville three years ago.
"I definitely feel like this was my most complete game of the season. It's conference play, so it's a different type of season now," said Gurley, who had two fouls Saturday after fouling out at Chattanooga Wednesday. "Staying out of foul trouble was a big deal for me. That can throw my flow off sometimes. Coach just told me to play disciplined defense the whole game and that's what I tried to do."
Richey added, "I've noticed a difference since Noah got back from Christmas. My strength coach said he had three extra sessions last week. He was working on his balance, ankle mobility and his base. I got a text last night that he was in the gym at nine o'clock getting shots up."
With Wednesday's scheduled game at Western Carolina postponed by COVID issues with the Catamounts, Furman will next play at home next Saturday against VMI.
"Our motto is 'whenever, wherever.' This is a crazy year," Gurley said. "We can let things we can't control affect us. So we're going to work this week and the coaches are going to come up with a good plan to make sure we're getting better."