Thursday, February 25, 2021

Furman rallies past Citadel, gets title shot

Noah Gurley had 21 points, nine rebounds and five second-half blocks to help Furman
rally for a 72-63 win over The Citadel Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Senior Night is always an emotional one at college basketball venues everywhere. There was the typical type of sentimental feeling at Furman Wednesday night when Clay Mounce was honored in a pregame ceremony prior to the final home game of the regular season.

After that, Furman fans must have experienced a wide range of emotions. It probably could be broken down like this:

  • First half - meh
  • Early second half - horror
  • Middle second half - encouraged
  • Late second half - happiness
  • Postgame - jubilation
Reigning Southern Conference Player of the Week Noah Gurley had 14 points and five blocks in the second half to help Furman rally from a 10-point deficit for a 72-63 win over an undermanned but feisty Citadel squad. Minutes later in Greensboro, the SoCon's last-place team, Western Carolina, stunned first-place UNCG, 81-80. That came two days after the Catamounts lost on their home court to the Spartans by 21.

Those two results vaulted Furman into first place with one game left in the regular season - a now even bigger showdown at Wofford Saturday night.

"That was quite a finish. The last 15 minutes of the game we started playing with the right spirit and right mentality," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "Give credit to Citadel. The job Duggar (Baucom) has done this year has been really incredible. It's not a team you can take lightly.
"They were the aggressor for a lot of the game, but our guys hung in there and didn't let themselves get too down. We had some guys off the bench step up. ... I couldn't be more proud of Noah and how he's playing."

The Paladins (16-7, 10-4) shot 63 percent in the second half, including a run of 16-of-20 shooting from the floor from the 15:50 to 1:20 mark. Furman hit each of its last eight shots in that run. Gurley finished with 21 points, nine rebounds and the five blocks for the game to lead the way.

"The big part for us was getting stops," Gurley said. "Collin Kenney takes the lid off the rim with a big three (to cut the lead to 45-38) and then Mike (Bothwell) started getting downhill, but the key was defense."

Furman made 10-of-12 field goals inside the arc in the first half, but hit just 3-of-16 from three to trail 32-31 at the break. Those shooting woes lingered into the second half as the Paladins made just one of their first five shots. Meanwhile, Citadel (12-11, 5-11) made seven consecutive shots to take a 47-38 lead with 14:45 left but the Bulldogs shot just 6-of-23 the rest of the way.

The Paladins started to creep back in it after two buckets from Bothwell and a layup by Alex Hunter in a 50-second span cut the lead to 47-44. Furman trailed 54-53 with 9:02 left when all those three-point misses finally started to even out. The Paladins got three consecutive threes - two by 6-foot-10 secret weapon Jonny Lawrence sandwiched around one by Gurley - to take a 62-54 lead with 7:24 left.

"We just really had to turn the energy. I credit them for being really fired up and ready to play," said Bothwell, who had 10 of his 14 points and five of his six rebounds in the second half. "Once we got on that run, we just kind of maintained that energy and carried it over to our defense. ... Noah was phenomenal in the post."

Gurley delivered the knockout blow with 2:44 left when he dunked off a lob from Jalen Slawson to give Furman its biggest lead at 70-59. Citadel, which was without starting guard Fletcher Abee and used only seven players, seemingly had no answers down the stretch.

Hunter, who took a nasty spill face first to the floor in the first half, came back and finished with 14 points and five assists. Also Wednesday, Hunter wasn't honored in the pregame senior ceremony as he plans to come back and play again in the 2021-22 season. Mounce got back on track a bit offensively as he had nine points on 4-of-8 shooting and three steals. Unlike Hunter, Mounce redshirted as a freshman and likely didn't have many options left for classes for a potential sixth year of school next fall.

Lawrence finished with nine points on 3-of-4 shooting 3-pointers. He's made 9-of-18 from three over the last four games after going 0-for-4 from three from Dec. 22 to Feb. 12. Slawson didn't score, but finished with eight rebounds and seven assists.

"Alex was just a warrior. His lip and eye are messed up and he got patched up and got back out there and fought," Richey said. "I could go on and on just about his growth this year. Over this last month-and-a-half, the confidence, toughness and fight that he's been playing with.
"He's decided he wants to come back for another year, which we're all pretty thrilled about. I joked with him telling him that 'nobody's ever going to catch the (career) win record now,' but that's what he is. He embodies a winner."

Now all the attention shifts to the regular season finale at Wofford (14-8, 11-5) Saturday at 7 p.m. A win would give Furman the SoCon's regular season championship and No. 1 seed in the SoCon Tournament. A loss would leave the Paladins with the No. 3 seed, as they would not win any tie-breaker with UNCG (17-8, 12-5) if they finished with the same winning percentage.

"If you want to play championship-level basketball, you've got to embrace situations like this. Our guys are ready for that," Richey said. "It's what we work for every single day and now it's in front of you. ... It's going to come down to can we just go possession by possession, stay in the moment and be ready to play a 40-minute game.
"I thought our resolve tonight was critical and we're going to need that as we go forward. As we finish the regular season and go into the Southern Conference Tournament, it's not always all going to go your way. You've got to be able to mentally work through that and I thought that was a positive step for our group tonight."

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