Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Furman drops another heartbreaker to SEC foe

Alex Hunter scored a career-high 30 points Friday, but Furman lost a
heartbreaker at Mississippi State, 69-66. Photo courtesy of Furman

An amazing shooting night by Alex Hunter and a remarkable comeback by Furman weren't enough to prevent another heartbreaking loss on a Southeastern Conference floor Friday. Hunter's potential game-tying three-pointer at the buzzer bounced off no good as Mississippi State held on for a 69-66 win. The Bulldogs went on a 6-0 run over the final 1:16 of the game to hand the Paladins their third three-point loss to an SEC foe in as many Decembers.

Prior to that miss, Hunter had knocked down 8-of-10 attempts from beyond the arc and finished with a career-high 30 points. Hunter has made 51-of-101 threes this season and is the only player in Division I with 50 made threes.

"He had the hot hand. I was pulling everything out of the playbook possible for him," Furman coach Bob Richey said on the Furman Radio Network's postgame show. "What a warrior. I'm so proud of him. He made a decision to come back and he didn't waver. And the game's rewarding him for his toughness, loyalty and commitment to this program.

"It's a pretty frustrating loss, but I'm proud of our group. I love our fight. We showed tremendous guts. To be down 18 on the road to an SEC team, we had every excuse to pack it in."

On the Paladins' previous two trips to SEC venues, Clay Mounce had 21 points in 16 minutes before fouling out with more than eight minutes left in an 83-80 loss to Alabama last year and Jalen Slawson played all of eight minutes before fouling out with 9:12 left in an 81-78 loss at Auburn two years ago. Each of those games featured critical blown calls that gave loose balls out of bounds to the home team.

On Friday, the officiating job wasn't as comical but basically what you come to expect in these matchups now. Mississippi State (8-3), which was bigger and drove inside more, was 14-of-21 at the foul line, while Furman (7-5) went 2-of-5. There was a pretty egregious non-call though at a pretty critical time.

Down 69-66 with 7.4 seconds left, Slawson had the ball and was wisely fouled with 4.5 seconds left as it was only the Bulldogs' sixth foul that half. Before Furman inbounded the ball at midcourt, Mississippi State coach Ben Howland gave the signal to his team to foul. Hunter got the ball and appeared to be immediately fouled by Garrison Brooks, but nothing was called. As he weaved his way around and then between Brooks and DJ Jeffries, it appeared there was contact but again no whistle. That left Hunter with an off-balance look from the top of the key that bounced harmlessly off the front of the rim.

In a postgame interview on the SEC Network, Brooks said, "I grabbed the guy and had told the referees that we were going to try to foul."

The game didn't have to come down to that final play though. A plethora of awful offensive possessions saw Furman trail 29-11 with five minutes left in the first half before the Paladins came roaring back. Slawson's layup with 9:31 left gave Furman a 48-47 lead. Back-to-back three-pointers by Hunter gave Furman a 57-51 lead with 7:13 left. Conley Garrison hit 2-of-3 free throws to stake the Paladins to a 64-58 edge with 3:51 left.

But Mississippi State put the 6-foot-7 Jeffries on Hunter to try to deny him the ball and Furman reverted back to those same first-half mistakes. After going 15 minutes in the second half without a turnover, the Paladins had five the rest of the way to finish with 18 for the game.

The only basket in that stretch was a jumper by Slawson that gave Furman a 66-63 lead with 2:12 left. On a night when the Paladins drained 14 threes, they missed their last three including a wide-open look for Garrison in the corner. That one would've given them a one-point lead with nine seconds left.

"I'll take Conley Garrison wide open in the corner any day of the week. That's what he does," Richey said. "If the shot goes, we probably feel great right now but unfortunately it didn't."

Slawson finished with 13 points, eight rebounds and four assists, while Garrison had 10 points and four assists. Mike Bothwell, who's hit so many game-tying shots in the final seconds to force overtimes this season, didn't have the chance Friday as he fouled out with 21 seconds left. Bothwell had five assists and two steals, but no points on just 0-of-3 shooting from the floor. It's the first time that Bothwell's been held scoreless in a game he started.

"We've got to get Mike going. I know that," Richey said. "We've got to figure out how we can get him back to how he was playing and we will."

Furman wraps up non-conference play when it hosts Presbyterian Tuesday at 7 p.m.

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