Friday, March 4, 2022

Paladins top Wofford to reach SoCon title game

Tierra Hodges had 20 points and 12 rebounds in Furman's 64-59 win over Wofford
in the SoCon Women's Tournament semifinals Friday. Photo courtesy of SoCon

A day after the Furman women's basketball team did something it hadn't done all season, it accomplished another season first on Friday. After being swept in the regular season by Wofford for the first time ever, the Paladins picked a heck of a time to avenge those losses. Tierra Hodges had 20 points, including four decisive ones in the last 70 seconds, to lead third-seeded Furman to a 64-59 win over the second-seeded Terriers in the semifinals of the Southern Conference Tournament in Asheville.

The Paladins (19-11) advance to face top-seeded Mercer for the SoCon championship at noon Sunday. Furman will be going for its first SoCon title since the 2000 season, which was head coach Jackie Carson's final year of her Hall of Fame playing career.

"I couldn't be prouder. This is the grittiest, hardest-working team," Carson said in the postgame press conference. "We've never in the past been able to just fight through adversity and we experienced about the maximum amount of adversity that you can experience in a game.

"That's a really good team (Wofford). They're senior heavy and Coach (Jimmy) Garrity does a tremendous job organizing, but we wanted this matchup. They're the only team that swept us and we circled it."

Less that 24 hours earlier, the Paladins fought back from a 14-point deficit to win a game after losing at the half for the first time this season. That turned into a back-and-forth battle with Chattanooga that Furman pulled out in overtime. Friday's game was another thriller with nine lead changes and six ties.

Unlike Thursday, neither team sniffed a lead of 14 on Friday. The biggest lead of the game came when Tate Walters' jumper pushed Furman's lead to 18-13 early in the second quarter. Wofford (17-13) quickly erased that with a 9-0 run that gave the Terriers their biggest lead of the game at 22-18.

Furman matched that five-point lead a couple of times in the fourth quarter on layups by Hodges and the Paladins seemed to have a relative sense of control leading 55-52 with three minutes to play. That's when a truly bizarre sequence of events shifted momentum to Wofford.

It started when the Terriers' Reagan Rapert had her shot blocked by Sydney James out of bounds. There seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary, but an official called a technical on James. Replay showed that James said something, but the nature of it all seemed to be equivalent to getting pulled over for doing 56 in a 55 mph zone. Rapert made 1-of-2 free throws and then Lilly Hatton had a putback to tie the game.

Rapert then made a deflection and in the loose ball scramble for the ball, Walters slightly clipped Rapert's right hip. Walters was called for a foul and after a few seconds of begging for an intentional foul by the Wofford bench, the wish was granted with no video review. Again, it may have technically been correct but it's a call that's rarely seen in that situation. Rapert made both free throws and, in a span of 20 seconds, the Terriers turned a three-point deficit into a 57-55 lead with 2:38 left.

Furman didn't flinch. After playing tough defense on Rapert down low, Walters grabbed a rebound off a missed layup. Walters then found Hodges for a layup to tie the game at 57-57 with 2:10 remaining. Hodges broke the tie a minute later with a pair of free throws. On Wofford's ensuing possession, Walters stole the ball from Rapert. Hodges tried a tough short jumper that took three bounces off the rim and backboard before falling through to give Furman a 61-57 lead with 31 seconds left. Hodges grabbed a rebound off a missed Wofford three with 22 seconds left to help seal the win.

"They never hung their head. They never stopped believing. We just knew we had to go get it," Carson said. "We never worried about things we can't control."

In addition to her game-high 20 points, Hodges also had 12 rebounds helping Furman win the rebounding battle, 47-30. After collecting 20 offensive rebounds Thursday, the Paladins had 17 Friday which led to a 19-9 advantage on second chance points. Hodges has 40 points and 32 rebounds in the tournament thus far and the SoCon Player of the Year has yet to take a break, playing all 95 minutes for the Paladins.

"We knew it was going to be back and forth. ... We never fold," Hodges said. "As a senior and a leader they count on me and put it on me to make those big shots and I've prepared for this moment."

James had 15 points and eight rebounds off the bench for Furman, while Walters finished with 12 points, eight assists and six rebounds.

The Paladins now get a full day to prepare for the rubber game of their season series with Mercer. Furman handed the Bears (22-6) their lone league loss this season with a 69-66 victory in Macon on Jan. 20. Mercer returned the favor with a 71-64 win in Greenville on Feb. 19.

While the Paladins have been in two knock down, drag out fights the first two days of the tournament, that hasn't been the case for the Bears. Mercer has won its two games by 39 and 30 points, respectively, so the day off could prove vital for Furman.

"We're going to rest a lot and I'll let them enjoy this one for a couple of hours," Carson said. "We're going to watch a lot of film and study. We shot ourselves in the foot the last time we played Mercer, so we're going to correct those things."

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