Thursday, March 3, 2022

SoCon's top player Hodges eyes bigger prize

After earning Southern Conference Player of the Year honors Tuesday, Furman's Tierra
Hodges hopes to cap her career with a SoCon championship. Photo courtesy of Furman

Tierra Hodges became the first Furman women's basketball player in 19 years to be named Southern Conference Player of the Year Tuesday. But that's not what Hodges came back for this season. After one big victory this week, she's looking for three more in Asheville as the third-seeded Paladins (17-11, 10-4) pursue the SoCon championship.

It's the sixth time a Furman woman has earned the league's top honor, including Natalie Cleckley (1991), Rushia Brown (1992), Deshara Shealey (2003) and Hodges' coach, Jackie Smith Carson (1998 and 1999). After Carson won her two, she capped her career with a SoCon Tournament championship in 2000.

When Carson's playing career ended. she was the second-leading scorer and rebounder in school history. Hodges is now the school's all-time leader in rebounds with 1,232 and she's hoping to finish her career just how her coach did. That 2000 SoCon title was the last time the Paladins cut down the nets.

"After we found out about the Player of the Year, Coach Carson just told me to 'stay calm.' She knows sometimes that award makes you feel like you have to go out there and do it all. She told me, 'you've already proved what you can do, so now it's time to just have fun.' " Hodges said. "We've been through ups and downs this season. We've had bad losses and great wins and I think it's all prepared us for this moment."

Hodges made 18 starts as a freshman in the 2017-18 season before tearing her ACL and missing all of the following season. With the "COVID year" of extra year of eligibility available, Hodges came back to Furman for a sixth season. It was not an easy process though. After going back and forth several times, Hodges said she ultimately went with her gut feeling.

"Last season was probably the most cohesive I've felt with the team. I really enjoyed playing with them and I knew the potential that we had," Hodges said. "When I first came here way back in my freshman year, my goal was to be a part of Coach Carson's first championship team as a coach. I didn't want to leave and always wonder, 'what if I stayed?' Deep down, I had to come back just to know what the outcome would be."

Hodges was the consensus choice as the SoCon's top player by the league's media and coaches. She leads the SoCon in scoring (18 points per game), rebounding (11.9 per game) and free throw shooting (83.2 percent). She ranks seventh nationally in rebounding this season and her career total is fourth-highest in SoCon history. Hodges is the sixth leading scorer in Furman history with 1,607 points.

"When she decided to come back, her focus was getting a championship. My focus was getting her Player of the Year and a championship because I know how hard she works and where she started and where she is now as a player," Carson said. "When a kid believes in your program enough to come back for a sixth year when that's not necessarily what everyone's telling them to do, you owe it to them to give them everything you possibly can. ... As she went, we went and that's the mark of a really good leader."

That leadership was proven in 2020. Like so many others when COVID-19 first hit, Hodges was quarantined at home. She used that time to expand her game and did so for what she felt the team needed. After never attempting a three-pointer her first three years at Furman, Hodges made 28 of them last season. She hit 19 more this year.

Broadening her horizons beyond the paint has done nothing to hurt her rebounding totals. Hodges averaged 10.4 rebounds per game last year, which was the same average she posted in the 2019-20 season. Her efforts on the glass are all the more remarkable by the fact that the 5-foot-9 Hodges is never really the biggest player on the court.

"The year before last we had lost three of our best three-point shooters, so I went to coach and said 'I want to shoot threes next year and help fill that gap that we're losing.' She gave me a regimen of what to do to work at it," Hodges said. "I have a little court in my yard and every day I was out there working on my form, the height of my shot and moving further and further back. I also watched a lot of film and took notes.

"Rebounding is just a mentality I have. I know I'm an undersized four. I've been that way all my life. Like Coach Carson says, 'it's all will and want.' ... See the ball and go get it has always been natural for me."

While Hodges was a first team All-SoCon selection for the third consecutive season, teammates Tate Walters and Grace van Rij made the second team and Niveya Henley earned a spot on the All-Freshman team. Walters, a sophomore, averages 12.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, and leads the SoCon with 105 assists. van Rij averages 10 points and 4.9 rebounds and leads the league in field goal percentage (50.7).

Henley helped the Paladins finish strong as she started nine of the final 10 games. The freshman from Seattle averages 4.1 points and 2.6 rebounds per game. Her accolade marks the 11th consecutive season that Furman has had a player make the five-person All-Freshman team under Carson.

Recapping the regular season

Furman opened the season 5-1 before going on a Thanksgiving road trip that was one of the highlights of the year and of Carson's career. The Paladins traveled to Berkeley, California to compete in Cal's Raising the BAR (Basketball, Activism and Representation) Invitational. Each of the four teams in that tournament - Furman, Cal, Mississippi and San Diego State - are led by black female head coaches.

On the trip, Carson got to met a fellow two-time SoCon Player of the Year in Golden State superstar Stephen Curry. While visiting the Golden State practice facility, the Paladins also spent time with Warriors head coach Steve Kerr.

On the court, Furman trailed a then undefeated Cal team by 25 points with 2:47 left in the third quarter before cutting the lead to 76-72 with 2:05 left in the fourth. The Paladins ultimately fell to the Pac-12 foe, 82-73, in a game in which Hodges had 25 points and seven rebounds. The next day, Furman defeated San Diego State 71-62 powered by a game-high 24 points by Walters.

"Part of the thing I learned from my coach was just having the full student-athlete experience of traveling to different places. The mommy coach in me loves taking our girls somewhere they've never been before," Carson said. "Our girls had no idea about the whole thing with Steph Curry. ... The highlight of the trip was having an in-depth conversation with him and talking about the SoCon." 

After flying back home, the Paladins stumbled a bit dropping five of their next six games. Furman then went 2-2 to open SoCon play before pulling off a 69-66 win at Mercer. That turned out to be the only league loss for the regular season champion Bears and it started a five-game winning streak for the Paladins.

Furman posted road wins at Chattanooga and ETSU last week to close out the regular season and secure third place in the league.

"I think I learned earlier this season to just stop talking about the end goal and focus on the process. Their chemistry also went up," Carson said of her team's success down the stretch. "They genuinely play for one another and enjoy being around one another. When you have 17 females on a team, that's pretty important."

On to Asheville

Furman will take on sixth-seeded Chattanooga in the opening round of the women's tournament Thursday at 5:45 p.m. The Paladins have won each of the last four meetings against the Mocs and not allowed more than 50 points in any of those games. In last year's opening round, Furman defeated Chattanooga 58-40. It was the fewest points the Paladins have ever allowed the Mocs to score in the series and the fewest they've ever allowed in a SoCon Tournament game.

Furman or Chattanooga will face the winner of the game between second-seeded Wofford and seventh-seeded ETSU in Friday's semifinals. The Terriers (16-12, 11-3) were the only team the Paladins didn't defeat in SoCon play as Wofford won at Furman for the first time ever and swept the regular season series for the first time. Walters didn't play in the Paladins' 74-69 home loss to the Terriers. Wofford's only other loss in league play besides Mercer came at ETSU last Thursday.

The SoCon women's championship final is set for Sunday at noon.

After winning just one road game the entire season last year, Furman went 5-2 on the road in SoCon play this season. Knowing it can win away from home and knowing it can compete with anyone in the league gives the Paladins confidence entering this postseason.

"We just know we've got to play our basketball in our style and do what we're supposed to do. I think that's what makes us a little bit dangerous. You never know what you're going to get in the second game, but I just want to get past the first one because I think the nerves and the hoopla can kind of get to you in that one," Carson said. "We can't get to the end goal worrying about anybody other than Chattanooga though."

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