Saturday, January 1, 2022

Defense helps Furman crush depleted Samford

Conley Garrison had 11 points, four rebounds and three assists in
Furman's 81-49 win over Samford. Photo courtesy of Furman

As Furman went through its non-conference schedule this men's basketball season, there seemed to be two major feelings Paladins coach Bob Richey had. He thought the rugged schedule would prepare Furman for Southern Conference play, and he knew the Paladins would have to shore up and play the kind of defense it's grown accustomed to playing to be successful.

During Wednesday's SoCon opener against a short-handed Samford team, both those thoughts were proven right. The Bulldogs shot 29.5 percent from the floor as Furman rolled to an 81-49 win at Timmons Arena. The Paladins (9-5, 1-0) improved to 7-0 this season when holding opponents below 50 percent shooting. It's the worst shooting day for a Furman opponent since UNC Greensboro shot 29.0 percent in a 68-49 loss at Timmons last season.

After having rebounding issues all season, the Paladins pulled down 50 Wednesday while Samford had 36.

"I thought that was the most consistent we've been on the defensive end all season," Richey said. "I don't know the last time we were plus-14 on the boards in a conference game. That's a really good sign that we've made some ground there.

"I thought we were going to find out in league play if playing a schedule that challenging was going to prepare us, and I think you saw that little bit tonight. Our non-league schedule was a bear and it showed us what we need to get better at."

Samford (10-3, 0-1) was missing a few players, including leading scorer Ques Glover, a Florida transfer who's averaging 19.3 points, 4.2 assists and 3.0 rebounds per game. It was still a dangerous team that was coming off a 75-73 win at Ole Miss and had knocked off Oregon State earlier this season.

Coming back from the Christmas back, both teams weren't very crisp out of the gate. The Paladins led 7-0 nearly three-and-a-half minutes in and 15-12 at the 11:19 mark. That's when Furman had as good of an 11-minute stretch as it has had all season. The Paladins went on a 11-2 run over the next 2:18 capped by Conley Garrison's three-pointer to take a 26-14 lead.

After Samford's Jaden Campbell hit a three with 8:27 left, the Bulldogs' next made field goal didn't come until the 2:19 mark. By then, Furman had built a 42-19 lead and that was Samford's last points of the half as the Paladins led 48-21 at the break. The Bulldogs went 1-of-15 from the floor over the final eight minutes of the first half and shot 22.6 percent (7-of-31) in it overall.

While Samford was without it's leading scorer, Furman had it's back as Alex Hunter was able to play following a nasty fall last time out that landed him in concussion protocol. Hunter, who was leading the country in threes before the injury-shortened game against Presbyterian, knocked down his first try on Wednesday and finished with 10 points after hitting 3-of-9 from beyond the arc.

Hunter also had four assists as he became just the fifth player in school history with 400 career assists. His presence on the floor served as an inspiration to teammates.

"Alex is a huge piece of this team. He's just a great leader in the way he acts and responds. He's always going to go as hard as he can and fight through whatever he's going through," said Mike Bothwell, who led five Paladins in double figures with 18 points and four assists. "That type of anchor on your team is the type of guy who helps you win games in ways that you don't even see.

"Watching him makes me think about how much harder I could be playing. When I saw him jump in early in the game and grab a monster rebound and push it in transition, I thought 'I have to go do that now.' He makes all of us better and nobody on this team doubted that he would somehow be back tonight."

Richey said he thought it was the hardest Bothwell has played all year.

"He had a great focus. He went there to get rebounds, deflections, to sit down in his stance and had a great voice leadership wise," Richey said. "When you focus on that and let your God-given talent take over, you can relax in that. Coming off the Mississippi State game (in which Bothwell didn't score and fouled out), it's been really nice to see his response." 

Furman stretched it's lead to 33 on three different occasions in the second half. The last of those came on a three-pointer by Garrison with 9:37 left that gave the Paladins a 70-37 lead. The teams combined for nine made field goals the rest of the way as Samford had it's lowest scoring output since a 58-48 loss to New Mexico State on Nov. 16, 2016.

Joe Anderson came off the bench to score a new career-high for the second consecutive game. He had 14 points and made 4-of-8 threes. Jalen Slawson had 12 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and four steals, while Garrison finished with 11 points, four rebounds and three assists. Garrett Hien added seven points and seven rebounds off the bench.

"It's amazing what Conley Garrison does, without necessarily scoring the ball. He just plays the game the right way," Richey said. "In my five years, I don't think I've asked a kid to shoot more that won't shoot open shots. ... But I just love watching him play the game."

Garrison is shooting 46.4 percent from three, 83.3 percent from the foul line and is averaging 8.9 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. He's second on the team in steals (17) and blocked shots (7). After averaging 17.3 points per game at Division II Drury last season, the grad transfer has settled in quickly at Furman.

"I had to find my role after being more of scorer on my last team. I knew being a main playmaker probably wasn't going to be my angle into getting playing time, so I had to find other ways," Garrison said. "I just try to play hard, be a stabilizer and bring toughness to the game."

Furman's first road trip in SoCon play comes this weekend when the Paladins play at VMI Saturday at 1 p.m.

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