|Furman seniors Tierra Hodges and Grace van Rij embrace after checking|
out of their final collegiate game Sunday. Photo courtesy of Furman
ASHEVILLE, N.C. - For one half Sunday it appeared that Tierra Hodges' long-awaited hope might be realized. When she arrived at Furman six years ago, it was Hodges' goal to be on the team that gave Jackie Carson her first Southern Conference championship as a coach.
But Hodges' foul trouble early in the third quarter started a small blaze of concern for Furman. And by the end of the quarter, the Paladins had a raging inferno on their hands. For a seven-minute stretch, Mercer went on a 22-0 run to turn a one-point halftime deficit into a comfortable lead. The top-seeded Bears went on to a 73-54 victory in the SoCon Women's Tournament final. It's the fourth women's championship in the last five seasons for Mercer (23-6).
"Hats off to Mercer. They're used to being here and in the third quarter we just got hit with a barrage. It was snowballing fast and there was very little we could do," Carson said. "The toughest thing is there was never a doubt in our mind that we were a championship team, so I never thought we would be in this position right now. ... We just felt it was our time. Everything just seemed aligned. Everything just seemed as it should.
"I have played in the NCAA tournament, coached in NCAA tournaments as an assistant and NITs. I’ve had WNBA players and I wouldn’t trade this group for any of it. They’re pretty special."
Third-seeded Furman entered Sunday's title game with confidence having been the only SoCon school to defeat Mercer this season. The first half was a great battle between two teams who thought they would win and it featured five ties and 11 lead changes.
That 11th lead change was one of the biggest highlights of the day. After Sydney James caused a steal for Furman in the final seconds of the first half, Tate Walters flew down the court. She launched a long three-pointer that hit nothing but net as the horn sounded and Furman took a 25-24 lead into halftime.
Something that proved to be more troublesome than perhaps first thought for Furman happened a little less than two minutes earlier. After Hodges lost control of the ball it appeared the Paladins had a shot clock violation, but instead Hodges was called for her second foul. That sent her to the bench for the first time of the entire tournament.
Mercer led 29-27 with 8:35 left in the third when Hodges got her third foul on a charge. Carson sat the SoCon Player of the Year, but after the Bears pushed the lead to 36-27 at the 7:03 mark, Hodges went back in. It was 38-27 less than two minutes later when Hodges tried to take a charge but was in the restricted area. Her fourth foul sent her to the bench for the remainder of the quarter. Walters also picked up her third foul in the third.
By the time Hodges came back to start the fourth, it was 54-29. Mercer won the third quarter, 30-4, making 11-of-15 field goals, including 3-of-4 threes, and 5-of-5 free throws. Meanwhile, Furman went 1-for-10 in the quarter. The Paladins never got closer than 16 the rest of the way. There were so many issues going wrong for Furman, it was hard to know where to begin to try to fix them.
"I was drinking from the fire hose. A lot of times when things are snowballing, we can press. We couldn't really press because I had to get these kids (in foul trouble) back on the floor. We tried to go small, but that's not a lineup we typically score with," Carson said. "It was just a lot to take in at once. ... I felt like we defended not too much differently than we did in the first half. They just came out and starting hitting shot after shot."
Hodges finished with 11 points and eight rebounds. She caps her brilliant career with 1,658 points - sixth best in school history, and a school record 1,272 rebounds. Her career rebounding total is fourth best in SoCon history.
"This year has been everything. My decision to come back was because of my teammates and Coach Carson," an emotional Hodges said. "We didn't reach my goal that I set when I got here, but that doesn't take away from everything we've been through this year.
"This team is great and it's meant everything to me. It's helped me grow my game and prepare me for the future. I'm just grateful for them."
Walters led Furman (19-12) with 20 points and three assists. Senior Grace van Rij had 12 points, five rebounds, three steals and a blocked shot. Hodges and Walters made the SoCon All-Tournament first team, while van Rij was a second team selection.
As a sophomore, Walters wasn't here for Furman's three-point loss to Mercer in the 2019 championship. She hopes to build off some of the experiences of this season's run to the final though.
"This has been an unbelievable year. With the seniors showing me how to lead and take the punches, this team has just shown so much grit," Walters said. "Of course, you always want a championship, but we really, really wanted this one for our seniors. I know we're going to be here again."