Monday, February 8, 2021

Hunter helps Paladins snap Spartans' streak

Alex Hunter had 19 points, six rebounds and five assists in Furman's
68-49 win over UNCG Monday. Photo courtesy of Furman

On a night when Furman's three top scorers combined for less than half of their season average and the Paladins piled up 18 turnovers, Furman went out and beat the hottest team in the Southern Conference by 19. Alex Hunter had 19 points, six rebounds and five assists as Furman bounced back from a crushing home loss to Wofford Saturday with a 68-49 win over UNC Greensboro at Timmons Arena.

The win snaps the Spartans' seven-game winning streak, their seven-game road win streak and leaves the top four teams in the SoCon each with three league losses and varying amounts of league wins. Wofford (12-6, 9-3) is a half-game ahead of UNCG (13-6, 8-3), who's a half-game ahead of ETSU (11-7, 7-3), who's a half-game ahead of Furman (12-6, 6-3).

On Monday, the Paladins displayed the kind of defensive focus and intensity that has been a baseline for the program's success the past few years. A UNCG team that was averaging 76.2 points per game in league play shot 27.8 percent in the first half, 30.8 percent in the second half and 29 percent (18-of-62) for the game including 2-of-18 (11.1 percent) on 3-pointers.

"I think we did some soul searching yesterday in practice and it showed today," Hunter said. "From start to finish, I think this was our best defensive game of the year."

Furman dominated the boards with a 46-31 rebounding advantage against a team averaging a SoCon-best 40.9 per game. While preseason SoCon Player of the Year Isaiah Miller had six steals for UNCG to move in to third place on the SoCon's all-time ledger, he was held to 14 points on 7-of-18 shooting. Keyshaun Langley had 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting and no other Spartan made more than one shot. UNCG had a season-low five assists as a team.

"Yesterday was a pretty difficult day. We had to self-assess and look in the mirror and figure out how we'd gotten away a little bit from our core values," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "Sometimes you've got to do that in the middle of a season and adversity brings it out the best. I'm really proud of our team and their response. Against a well-coached team that's been playing really well, they played really, really hard and played together.

"We played the way we're supposed to play. The way we've needed to be playing all year. We've played like that in spurts, but tonight was the most consistent in terms of our effort for 40 minutes."

Richey shook up Monday's starting lineup as Colin Kenney and freshman Garrett Hien made their first career starts, while Clay Mounce and Jalen Slawson came off the bench. The moves were meant as more of a message, but they also proved to be fruitful. Hien had seven points and a career-high eight rebounds in 23 minutes. Richey said a goal Monday was to get Hien at least 20 minutes.

Mounce, who has struggled a bit in shooting efficiency lately, had seven points on 3-of-4 shooting and five rebounds. It was the second time in the past three games that Slawson started on the bench, but each of those times he responded in a big way.

After a 12-point, nine-rebound, four-assist showing off the bench in Furman's win at Western Carolina on Jan. 30, Slawson had 14 points, six rebounds and three assists in 21 minutes Monday. He also had just two turnovers and only one foul.

"I don't think Jalen quite understands how good he can be if he commits to playing one way. I'm hoping he felt that today with all the blocks and the plays in transition." Richey said. "He went out there and played with toughness and played connected. I was really proud of his response. ... As my predecessor, Niko Medved, used to always remind me, 'it's not who starts the game, it's who finishes it.' "

Slawson's biggest contribution Monday was a career-high five blocked shots, most of which were cases of the junior chasing down someone from behind to turn a seemingly easy bucket into a miss.

"He makes up for a lot of mistakes us guards have, if we get beat off the bounce or give up a drive," Hunter said. "He makes our lives easier and it translates. When he plays that hard defensively, offense comes easy for him."

Slawson missed out on three more close blocks that were ruled goaltending. Richey said he can live with the goaltends, based on the what it's a byproduct of.

"I don't say anything to him (about goaltending) because his timing is really good It's a natural thing," Richey said. "When he plays like that, let him fly around. And if he will be willing to fly around, it makes things really difficult for opponents."

Furman led 12-11 with 12:49 left before a dominant run gave the Paladins a hefty advantage they never squandered. It started with an 8-0, two-and-a-half minute flurry - a dunk by Noah Gurley off a feed by Slawson; a Mike Bothwell steal and layup; a Clay Mounce steal and layup with an assist from Bothwell; a Hunter layup off a feed from Jonny Lawrence. Hunter's layup with 4:58 left made it an 18-2 run over nearly eight minutes and gave the Paladins a 30-13 lead.

Hunter then added a big pair of threes as he scored all eight of Furman's points over the final 7:18 of the half as the Paladins took a 36-24 lead into the break. UNCG got the lead down to eight on a steal and dunk by Miller with 17:14 left, but Hunter found Slawson for a 3-pointer 21 seconds later and Furman never trailed by less than 11 the rest of the way.

"This is the third game in a row that Alex has played exceptional. As bad as we were in some spots on Saturday, Alex played really well," Richey said. "He's been playing the game the right way and I want to make sure we empower that. I want to make sure he feels free to go out there and play with that confidence because he's earned that. I love how he handled the press and how aggressive he was to get to a shot."

Bothwell was the other Paladin in double figures with 12 points. Gurley had only four points, but the junior grabbed 11 rebounds for the second consecutive game giving him four double-digit rebound games in his career. Gurley also had four assists and two blocks.

The teams will meet again on Wednesday this time in Greensboro. Tip-off is again scheduled for 5 p.m. and the game will again be televised by ESPNU.

"It's one game (Monday's win). We had this look-in-the-mirror moment yesterday and we got a win, so we responded and that's great ... but we've got to consistently go do it," Richey said. "It's got to be part of our DNA and we're going to continue to fight to get there."

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