Saturday, November 26, 2022

Historic defensive effort lifts Furman past Elon

Furman's Xavier Stephens had 2.5 sacks in the Paladins' 31-6 win over Elon
in Saturday's opening round of the FCS playoffs. Photo courtesy of Furman

In Furman's storied history of Division I-AA and FCS playoff football, the Paladins had never held a opponent out of the end zone for the game.

Until Saturday.

Furman (10-2) had 251 yards rushing on offense and limited Elon to 77 yards on the ground as the Paladins rolled to a 31-6 win in the opening round of the playoffs Saturday at Paladin Stadium. It's the fewest points Furman has ever allowed in 37 playoff games in school history and the only time its opponent hasn't scored a touchdown.

The 11th-ranked Paladins will travel to San Antonio to play at seventh-seeded and fifth-ranked Incarnate Word in next Saturday's round two at 2 p.m.

"I couldn't be prouder of how our group prepared. Our staff did a phenomenal job of putting our guys in positions to go make plays," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "I just can't say enough about the way we played defensively. When you do that, it certainly makes it a little easier to play offense and win ballgames."

No. 12-ranked Elon (8-4) struck first when Skyler Davis made a 52-yard field goal on the game's opening drive, which was extended by a fake punt that Furman was actually prepared for but only required a two-yard run.

Dominic Roberto's longest run of the day, a 25-yarder, started Furman's second drive. Tyler Huff's longest pass of the day ended it as Ryan Miller caught a pass over the middle and rumbled to the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown.

Elon's ensuing drive ended when quarterback Matthew McCoy was dropped for a loss of one on fourth-and-one. On the Paladins' next drive, Huff scrambled for a 12-yard gain on third-and-four on the first play of the second quarter. Devin Abrams scored on a 10-yard run on next play to push Furman's lead to 14-3.

Later in the second quarter, Elon's lone trip to the red zone ended in spectacular fashion for Furman. On fourth-and-three, the Phoenix lined up for a 25-yard field goal but ran a fake. Davis took a lateral from the holder and was immediately obliterated by Travis Blackshear. Kam Brinson recovered the fumble.

"Certainly that play was huge," Hendrix said. "We've been practicing for fake goals. We've blocked so many kicks, we knew we were going to see stuff."

After that play by Blackshear with 5:45 left in the first half, Elon crossed midfield just twice the rest of the day. One of those times, Luke Clark forced a fumble that Seth Johnson recovered at the Furman 28 on the next play. The second time resulted in a 51-yard field goal by Davis that cut Furman's lead to 17-6 early in the fourth quarter.

Furman then had the answer of all answers of a drive. The Paladins drove 75 yards on 16 plays and shaved 9:39 off the clock. The march when Huff scrambled for a nine-yard touchdown on third-and-seven to extend Furman's lead to 24-6 with five minutes left.

That was a fitting end to a drive as it featured the most symbolic play of the day thanks to Huff. On third-and-two early on in the possession, Huff bulldozed his way for a five-yard run that had no business getting anything positive.

"I always tell our running backs, 'find you a soft shoulder.' Well Tyler didn't find a soft shoulder. He hit the guy right down the middle and I'm thinking that he's going to get stopped but then the pile just kept moving," Hendrix said. "I think it just epitomized our whole day and was certainly a big play in a big drive."

Furman stopped Elon on downs at the Phoenix 44 on the next possession. Grant Robinson put the cherry on top of the victory with a 25-yard touchdown run on his lone carry.

Roberto finished with 98 yards on 23 carries giving him 1,061 this season and 2,055 in his career, which ranks 12th-highest in school history. Huff had 93 yards rushing on 10 attempts and completed 16-of-26 passes for 140 yards and no interceptions.

"Our defense has done a tremendous job all year. They've picked us up when we've been slacking and they did it again today," Huff said. "This was my first playoff game so to advance to the second round, it's an amazing feeling."

Furman's defense held Elon 1,000-yard rusher Jalen Hampton, a Virginia Tech transfer, to 30 yards on 10 carries. McKay, who previously played at N.C. State and Montana State, netted 53 yards on 11 carries and completed 20-of-40 passes for 238 yards.

McKay was sacked four times, 2.5 of which were by noseguard Xavier Stephens. Alex Maier accounted for the other 1.5 sacks. Bryce McCormick and Braden Gilby had seven tackles apiece to lead the defense.

"I just trust the process and coaches, keep my head down and grind," said Stephens, who had just five tackles over the first five games this season, but has 20 stops and four sacks since. "I trust the defensive backs and linebackers to get quick coverage and I trust my boys up front to get pressure that frees me to get sacks."

Foster sparks first-half blitz as Furman rolls

Marcus Foster had a career-high 22 points in Furman's 102-74
win over Tusculum Friday. Photo courtesy of Furman

All you needed to know about Furman's basketball game against Tusculum Friday could be summed up with one amazing stat. At the 14:56 mark of the first half, Tusculum had its third defensive rebound of the game. At the 19:06 mark of the second half, Tusculum had its fourth defensive rebound.

While it came against an overmatched Division II opponent - although Tusculum (2-0) is a high-scoring team ranked No. 7 in its region poll, the Paladins put on an absolute clinic during that near 16-minute run. Furman (4-2) made 18-of-20 field goals during that stretch and grabbed offensive rebounds that led to scores off both misses. That helped the Paladins cruise to a 102-74 win.

"We only missed eight shots in the first half, but got five offensive rebounds. ... That's something that we've really emphasized and (assistant) Coach (Tim) Johnson led the way with that," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "We know that's an area we had to be better in and so far this year, that's probably been one of the bright sides. ... We've been 19th in the country in defensive rebounding and that's playing two high-majors, a (Missouri) Valley school and a Sun Belt school. The Sun Belt team in Old Dominion was as physical as anybody.

"There's still some things we've got to do better, but I do think it's starting to show up in our identity."

Playing at home for the first time in two weeks on a Friday afternoon the day after Thanksgiving, the Paladins trailed 15-11 at the 13:44 mark. When Marcus Foster went to work, Furman's sluggish play suddenly stopped. While Foster scored a career-high 22 points, as usual his defense was the key to the Paladins' spurt.

It was still 15-11 when Foster grabbed an offensive rebound and drew a foul with 13:23 left. He made both free throws to start a 21-2 run over the next seven minutes. His three-pointer as time expired in the first half pushed Furman's lead to 57-27 at the break. The Paladins shot 73.3 percent in the opening half.

"Marcus was the one that stood out the most, not just in scoring but he led us in deflections today and he took the only charge called," Richey said. "I keep telling him how good he can be and how much better he can be. It's just a matter of how hard he plays. I've been proud of him. He's been warming up harder, turning the motor on and being ready to play."

Furman wasn't nearly as sharp in the second half, but never led by less than 23 the rest of the way. For the second consecutive game, eight different Paladins had at least one assist as the team finished with 24.

Like Foster, Jalen Slawson also had 22 points. Slawson also had 10 rebounds and five assists, while Foster also had seven rebounds. Mike Bothwell added 18 points, five assists and two steals, while Tyrese Hughey had 15 points and three steals. After missing all of last season with an injury, Jonny Lawrence knocked down a pair of threes for his first points since making 3-of-4 threes against The Citadel on Feb. 24, 2021. 

"I take pride in defense. That's one thing I want to leave my mark in, so I was just focused on not missing any assignments and staying active on the ball," said Foster, who came off the bench for the second consecutive game Friday. "I try to be a better leader on the defensive side of the ball to get our guys going."

Coming off a career-high 20-point game in the win over South Carolina, Garrett Hien didn't dress out for Friday's game due to a calf strain. Richey said Hien is day-to-day, but he him to return "sooner rather than later."

Furman will have its first true road game Tuesday when it plays at Appalachian State at 6:30 p.m. The Mountaineers (5-2), who put up 142 points in the season opener against Warren Wilson, will be coming off a 74-70 win at East Tennessee State on Wednesday.

"We enjoy playing high-level mid-major games and this one will be no different. I've got a lot of respect for (App State head coach) Dustin (Kerns)," Richey said. "He's a great coach of a great program. ... He will have his team ready to play."

Furman set to host Elon in FCS playoff opener

Furman noseguard Cameron Coleman (0) is one of 12 Paladins to earn
All-Southern Conference honors this season. Photo courtesy of Furman

For the first time in 17 years, Paladin Stadium is set for some postseason football. Eleventh-ranked Furman will host No. 12 Elon Saturday at noon in the opening round of the FCS playoffs. It's the Paladins' first home playoff game since a 14-12 win over Nicholls State in the opening round of the 2005 playoffs. Saturday's winner will travel to San Antonio to play at seventh-seeded Incarnate Word next Saturday.

"It's an exciting time for us. This never gets old when you get this opportunity," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said during his weekly press conference Monday. "To win this thing by having to go on the road for five weeks is a pretty tough challenge, so having the chance to play at home is huge.

"I'm thankful to our administration. When we came back here as a staff we put in some fund-raising efforts to help us make a good, strong bid (to host a first-round game). For our football team, I think what I'm most proud about is the improvement we've made all year. We're certainly playing our best football, which we need to be."

The Phoenix (8-3) come into Greenville with statistical numbers that look quite a bit like Furman (9-2). Elon leading rusher Jalen Hampton has 1,023 yards and 10 touchdowns on 221 carries (4.6 yards per carry). Furman leading rusher Dominic Roberto has 963 yards and 10 touchdowns on 159 attempts (6.1 ypc).

Elon's second-leading rusher is quarterback Matthew McKay, who has 406 yards and three touchdowns on 108 attempts (3.8 ypc). Furman's second-leading rusher is quarterback Tyler Huff, who has 537 yards and five touchdowns on 86 carries (6.2 ypc). McKay has completed 177-of-283 passes for 2,471 yards with 21 touchdowns and four interceptions for a passer rating of 157.5 Huff is 167-of-238 passing for 1,888 yards with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions for a rating of 149.8.

Elon has allowed 200 points this season and its defense has 66 tackles-for-loss, including 34 sacks, and has forced 21 turnovers. Furman has given up 203 points and its defense has 77 tackles-for-loss, including 25 sacks, and forced 24 turnovers.

"We're built similarly. They want to rush the football and be efficient throwing it. One thing that's stood out from talking with folks that's faced them is their appearance. With their size and length, they're an impressive looking group," Hendrix said. "Their quarterback was at N.C. State then Montana State. He's a big tall guy who's accurate and is certainly a threat to run. ... Their running back is a Virginia Tech transfer and they're really big up front with big receivers as well.

"Defensively, their numbers are really outstanding in a a really good league."

Furman will be going for its sixth win in seven playoff games against current Colonial Athletic Association teams. The Paladins will also try to earn the Southern Conference some much needed respect on a national level. While the nine-team SoCon still has the wild concept of every team playing one another every season, the 13-team CAA gets multiple playoff bids each year for teams who often have conveniently not faced one another.

That wasn't the case for Elon this year though. The Phoenix went 4-1 against FCS playoff teams this season, including a 3-1 mark against fellow CAA playoff teams. Elon handed fifth-seeded William and Mary its only loss this season with a 35-31 road win on Sept. 24.

"They're one of the ones that played all their league teams that got in. I think that's huge for their credit," Hendrix said. "We have a lot of respect for them and we've had a couple of really good games against them right when we first got back here. ... We will certainly have to be at our best this weekend."

Despite having four SoCon teams ranked in the top 20 of the Stats Perform (media) poll much of the second half of the season, only sixth-seeded Samford and Furman made the 24-team playoff field. Chattanooga was upset in the regular season finale for the second consecutive year when it fell at Western Carolina last Saturday, while Mercer was snubbed after a 50-44 double overtime loss at Samford.

Perhaps if Mercer had not taken its league champion to double overtime on the road and instead lost by five touchdowns like Montana did at Montana State last week, it could've made the field and gotten a home game to boot. The Grizzlies (7-4) will be going for their first win over a team with a record of better than 4-7 this season when they host Southeast Missouri State (9-2) Saturday. SEMO, which has one win over a team with a winning record, got the Ohio Valley Conference's autobid on a coin flip after it finished tied with Tennessee-Martin atop the OVC standings at ... 5-0.

Losing down the stretch didn't prevent CAA member Delaware from also making the field and also getting rewarded with a home game. The Blue Hens (7-4), losers of four of their last six games including a 27-7 loss at Elon, get to host St. Francis (Pa.), champions of the 45-scholarship limit Northeast Conference. NEC teams are 1-12 all-time in the FCS playoffs.

So why Elon?

Every team in the FCS playoffs is supposedly "good," so every matchup is supposedly "tough." But between teams buying home games in the opening round - and perhaps buying their way into the field seemingly this season - and making the the playoffs via coin flips after playing only five conference games, the whole FCS postseason system seems more out of whack than ever.

A case in that point is this Saturday's game in Greenville. In a 24-team field, how is it that the 11th and 12th-ranked teams square off in round one? Even with "regional matchups" factored in, this just doesn't make sense. In a real tournament where every team was seeded, Furman would be considered a No. 10 seed based off of being aligned with No. 7 seed UIW. That would mean the Paladins' opponent would be the No. 23 seed, which certainly would not be Elon.

"I'll be honest with you. I'm not real crazy about the (selection) process," Hendrix said. "I think it needs to be tweaked. I can't say I was surprised it was Elon, because I knew they would be a possibility but I thought others might be more of a possibility. ... I was just really excited to have a home game."

In a logical playoff system, Furamn's opponent Saturday should more likely have been unranked ASUN/WAC automatic qualifier Eastern Kentucky, unranked Big South champion Gardner-Webb or unranked Davidson, the automatic qualifier of the non-scholarship Pioneer League. Gardner-Webb and Davidson didn't register among others receiving votes in the final Stats Perform poll.

Instead, 7-4 Eastern Kentucky is hosting Gardner-Webb with the winner getting on a bus to travel to fifth-seeded William and Mary. Meanwhile, Richmond - which lost at Elon in double overtime this season - gets to host Davidson Saturday.

In this week's scientific Massey Ratings, Furman is rated ninth, Elon 19th, Richmond 20th, Eastern Kentucky 31st, Gardner-Webb 44th and Davidson checks in at 98th.

A dozen Paladins earn All-SoCon honors

While Saturday will be Furman's first home playoff game since 2005, this season also marks the Paladins' highest win total since 2005. That season came up again this week when three offensive linemen earned first team All-SoCon honors for the first time since 2005.

Tackles Anderson Tomlin and Pearson Toomey and guard Jacob Johanning made the Coaches' first team along with All-American tight end Ryan Miller. Furman had two first team picks on defense in noseguard Cameron Coleman and free safety Hugh Ryan.

Second-team selections were running back Dominic Roberto, cornerback Travis Blackshear, linebacker Braden Gilby, and return specialist Wayne Anderson. Bandit Alex Maier and safety Caleb Williams represented Furman on the All-Freshman team.

"I could go back and look at some playoff teams we've had here and say, 'yeah, I knew that team could line up and play with anybody.' For others I might say, 'if we could win a game,' " Hendrix said. "What's excited me about this team all year long is that I think we can line up and play with anybody. We will have our work cut out for us Saturday, but I just think we're a team that can do that."

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

After 12-year wait, Paladins crush USC again

Garrett Hien had a career-high 20 points off the bench in Furman's
79-60 win over South Carolina. Photo courtesy of Furman

Prior to this men's basketball season, the last time Furman faced South Carolina was Dec. 22, 2010 when Amu Saaka's 20-point performance led the Paladins to a 91-75 victory at Timmons Arena. After what Furman did to the Gamecocks Sunday in Charleston, I wouldn't anticipate anything less than another 12-year wait for a 127th meeting in the series that dates back to 1908.

Coming off the bench for the first time this season, Garrett Hien scored a career-high 20 points in 26 minutes and Furman shot 57.7 percent in the second half to roll over USC, 79-60, on the final day of the Shriners Children's Charleston Classic at T.D. Arena. The Paladins (3-2) made 12-of-27 three-pointers (44.4 percent) to salvage their final game at the tournament. That included a career-high 3-of-4 from three for the 6-foot-9 Hien, who had struggled in the first two games of the tournament.

"Garrett's got unbelievable intent and he's Furman through and through," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "On Sunday, you saw him run the floor a little bit harder, play with a little bit more spirit. I've told him, 'look, you're not going to be the biggest guy down there. You've got to use your speed and skill to your advantage.' He did that Sunday.

"Beating an SEC school is something we don't take lightly. Any power-five win is a great win."

While Furman's first two games of the tournament took a similar route - the Paladins almost rallying from a 20-point deficit only to lose by five - that second loss on Friday against Old Dominion dealt a more somber mood than the loss to Penn State did on Thursday.

As Richey pointed out following Friday's game, it's the first time the Paladins had lost on back-to-back days in his tenure. That feeling persuaded Richey to cancel Saturday's off-day practice to "kind of hit the reset button."

"We didn't even walk in the gym on Saturday. We watched film and had a walk-through," Richey said. "The whole focus for us was getting back to having a good competitive spirit with a good, connected energy.

"I thought we did both those things well Sunday. We had 22 assists, which is always something that's critical for us. And the big thing was we turned them over and didn't give them second-chance shots. Trying to increase our possessions and decrease theirs was a huge part of the game plan."

Tyrese Hughey and Ben VanderWal replaced Hien and Marcus Foster in the starting lineup Sunday. The move paid off in numerous ways. Hughey, who had a career-high day in points (15) and rebounds (11) Thursday before only trying one shot in 10 minutes as he was saddled with foul trouble Friday, scored Furman's first seven points Sunday. That kept the Paladins in the game early on as freshman sensation G.G. Jackson led the Gamecocks to an 11-4 lead out of the gate.

That's when Foster became a factor. Foster tied the game 18-18 on a 3-pointer with 11:33 left in the half. Hien grabbed a pair of offensive rebounds on Furman's next possession, which led to a Jalen Slawson bucket as the Paladins took the lead for good. That three by Foster started a 15-0 run as VanderWal hit a pair of free throws with 6:35 left in the half to push the lead to 30-18.

Where Foster really made his mark though was on the defensive end of the court. While Jackson led USC (2-3) with 19 points, he had only three points on 1-of-6 shooting over the final 15:42 of the game as Furman pulled away. After the Gamecocks cut the lead to eight with 13:18 left, a steal by Foster led to a three-pointer by Hughey a minute later and the Paladins led by double figures the rest of the way. Furman outscored USC by 23 during Foster's 28:51 on the floor.

"Marcus' defense on G.G. was just incredible in that second half. ... Those guys (Foster and Hien) handled it great. Without practicing, I wanted to do something to shake up the energy a little bit," Richey said. "There's a little bit of trend in college basketball to bring some experience and firepower off the bench because a lot of times, you're injecting guys that can be key contributors while other people are going through their second line of rotation."

In the loss to ODU, Mike Bothwell and J.P. Pegues combined for 43 points and 10 assists to account for the majority of Furman's 77 points. Richey stressed that his backcourt can't be asked to do everything. Against USC, it was clear that the Paladins got the message. Hien was one of four Paladins in double figures. Slawson had 14 points, seven rebounds, five assists and two blocks. Hughey finished with 12 points, while Bothwell had 11 points, a career-high eight assists, five rebounds and two steals.

Pegues had nine points and five rebounds, while Foster finished with eight points. Eight of the nine Paladins who played had at least one steal. Furman forced 17 turnovers, outscored the Gamecocks 23-4 in points off those, outrebounded USC 34-24, and had 22 assists on 30 made field goals.

While a Sunday morning, seventh-place game of an eight-team tournament was a less than ideal way to face USC, Richey - a South Carolina native - savored the chance. While the Paladins had not faced the Gamecocks in 12 years, it's been nine years since they've played Clemson. In eight years from the 2006-07 season to the 2013-14 season, Furman faced the Tigers six times. Ever since the Paladins "got good," they haven't been able to get either of the two state power-five programs on the regular schedule.

"It's an SEC school, a power-five school. If you look at facilities, budget, resources, it's not close. But at the end of the day, we want to be an elite mid-major program that's recognized as one of the best in the state," Richey said. "It's hard for us to get those opportunities. We would love to get them. I think it's healthy for us to be able to showcase basketball in the state, but we've got to be willing to play one another.

"For me, growing up in Columbia and having never had the chance to compete against them as an assistant or a head coach, Sunday was pretty neat."

Honors for Bothwell, Slawson

Even though Furman went 1-2 at the tournament, Bothwell shined enough that he was selected as the Southern Conference's Player of the Week. He averaged 20 points, 5.7 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game in Charleston and was also named to the All-Tournament team.

On Wednesday announced that Bothwell and Slawson were part of the 50-player Lou Henson Award watch list. The award is presented annually to the top mid-major player in the country. Bothwell and Slawson are two of four SoCon players on the list, as Samford's Ques Glover and Chattanooga's Jake Stephens also were selected.

Selvy inducted into Hall of Fame

Furman legend Frank Selvy, the only player ever to score 100 points in an NCAA game, was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Mo. Sunday. While Selvy's health did not allow him to travel to the ceremony, his wife Barbara spoke on his behalf there.

In conjunction with the celebration of Selvy's Hall of Fame honor, Furman announced that school's Male Student Athlete of the Year would now earn the "Frank Selvy Award." Selvy led Division I in scoring both as a junior with 29.5 points per game and as a senior (41.7 ppg). Most notably, Selvy scored a Division I-record 100 points on 41-of-66 shooting against Newberry on Feb. 13, 1954, at Textile Hall in downtown Greenville.

A two-time Southern Conference Player of the Year selection, three-time first team All-SoCon and All-America choice, including consensus All-America and United Press National Player of the Year pick in 1954, he was a first round selection in the 1954 NBA Draft by the Baltimore Bullets. Selvy made two NBA All-Star Teams over a nine-year pro career that was interrupted by three years of military service.

"Frank's record-breaking accomplishments throughout his career and 100-point game in 1954 are legendary in the sport of basketball and the city of Greenville," Furman athletic direction Jason Donnelly said. "In recognition of Frank's legacy and impact, Furman athletics is excited to name the Male Student Athlete of Year the "Frank Selvy Award" from this day forward."

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Paladins thump Wofford, pad playoff resume

Dominic Roberto (8) and Ryan Miller celebrate in Furman's 63-28 win over Wofford Saturday. Miller
broke Chas Fox's career touchdown reception record with his 27th. Photo courtesy of Furman

You may never get a second chance to make a first impression, but final impressions are pretty important too. On Saturday, 12th-ranked Furman's final impression to the FCS playoff committee was awfully impressive. The Paladins didn't score in the fourth quarter, but still had their highest scoring output against a Division I opponent in 19 years as they whipped Wofford, 63-28, before a crowd of 10,117 at Paladin Stadium.

It was the most points scored against a Division I foe since the 2003 squad ended the season with a 63-21 win at Chattanooga. Furman (9-2, 7-1 Southern Conference) just missed out on grabbing a share of the SoCon championship when Samford outlasted Mercer, 50-44, in double overtime. Mercer had a first-and-goal at the Samford two in the final seconds of regulation, but had to settle for a game-tying field goal.

Now the Paladins will wait to see who, when and where they play next when the FCS playoff field is revealed at 12:30 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU. Their resume includes wins over three ranked teams, a loss to a one-loss FBS power in Clemson and the other loss to an FCS team that had no FCS losses in Samford. That seven-point loss to Samford was played without starting quarterback Tyler Huff and had a play controversial enough to warrant a public apology to Furman by the SoCon.

"It was a complete win out there today. There's always things you want to go back and do better, but I thought it was our best day offensively," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said after Saturday's win. "Their offense for the day was jump balls and obviously we didn't do as good a job against those as we should have, but I can't say enough about our team.

"I think we have a heck of a football team. I'm certainly excited to be playing again and I can actually talk about it now. ... I think we're a seeded football team. They may not call me and ask me my opinion tonight, but I think we've proven that by how we've played and the schedule we've played."

Furman could essentially do whatever it wanted offensively Saturday. With backups in at all spots in the fourth quarter, the Paladins had 10 yards on nine plays but still finished with 469 yards of total offense. Furman converted all of its first downs over the first three quarters - all four of them.

Huff was sensational as he completed 21-of-22 passes for 295 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He also rushed eight times for 40 yards and two scores. Dominic Roberto ran for 90 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. Joshua Harris built off his career day last week with 112 yards receiving on eight catches, including a touchdown.

"It wasn't nothing spectacular by me. We were throwing screens and I was just getting the ball to my guys," Huff said. "Throwing to a guy like (Harris) is easy because if you put it anywhere near him, he's going to catch it. I'm confident any time I throw it his way."

While there were plenty of stars all over for Furman Saturday, one got the game ball. That went to All-American tight end Ryan Miller, who caught a pair of touchdowns to break Chas Fox's school record with 27 in his career.

"I don't think I've ever been in a locker room where the game ball has been given out, but I gave Ryan the game ball today," Hendrix said. "I just thought it was appropriate. What's hard about that is that you want to win the game, but you also want to get that record for him. ... We don't have a guy that's worked any harder or practices any harder.

"Chas was a good teammate and a heck of a player. He's actually the one that brought the record to my attention earlier this season. He told me he wanted to speak to Ryan when he breaks it and I told him we could make that happen."

It wasn't all cake and ice cream for Furman Saturday. A Wofford team that had won three out of four came out with guns blazing and the Paladins found themselves in a shootout early on. But with the game tied 14-14 in the first quarter, Furman's defense finally snapped the back-and-forth scorefest with a three-and-out.

After the Paladins went up 21-14 on their ensuing possession, their defense bluntly turned the shootout into a rout. On first down, the Terriers' Kyle Parsons took a handoff and was immediately slammed to the ground by Cameron Coleman for a one-yard loss. On second down, Parsons caught a screen pass and was immediately upended by Travis Blackshear for a two-yard gain. On third down, Wofford quarterback Jimmy Weirick took a big hit from behind by cornerback Ivan Yates and fumbled. Alex Maier recovered setting up Furman at the Wofford 21.

"I think the key was how we played offensively, because we kept answering when we were struggling (defensively)," Hendrix said. "But that series defensively absolutely turned the tide."

By the time the Terriers scored again late in the second quarter, the Paladins had a 42-14 lead. It took 17 passes for Huff's first incompletion and that was an interception by Wofford with 1:02 left in the half. The Terriers looked to cut more into the lead with a field goal, but Jack Barton came up with his fourth blocked kick of the season and Travis Blackshear returned it 33 yards to the Wofford 37.

Furman could not take advantage of it points-wise as Huff was sacked on the final play of the half and the Paladins settled for a 42-21 lead at the break. There was no let up in the second half as Huff and Kendall Thomas ran for touchdowns on Furman's first two possessions.

The cherry on top of the day was once again provided by special teams. Wofford tried another field goal and this one was blocked by Cameron Coleman. Blackshear again scooped up the loose ball and this time he raced 65 yards for a touchdown to push the lead to 63-21 late in the third quarter.  That marked Furman's fourth consecutive blocked field goal dating back to the Chattanooga game. The Paladins have blocked eight kicks and one punt this season.

"We were really happy that Cujo (Coleman) got one. ... He's the lowest man on the line every time on that play," Barton said. "He will put his helmet right into the other dude's helmet and knock them back. Then Matt (Sochovka) and I just have a field day."

Furman withstood a career-high passing day by Weirick, who finished with 428 yards on 25-of-43 passing with two interceptions. The Paladins limited Wofford to 37 yards rushing on 24 attempts.

Another big hole leads to another Furman loss

J.P. Pegues had a career-high 20 points and five assists in Furman's
82-77 loss to Old Dominion Friday. Photo courtesy of Furman

CHARLESTON - For the second time in as many days at the Shriners Children's Charleston Classic, Furman's opponent built a 20-point lead and withstood a rally. After Penn State shot the lights out in the first half Thursday in building a 21-point lead, Old Dominion shot the lights out in both halves Friday to knock off the Paladins, 82-77.

In Thursday's opening game of the tournament, Furman (2-2) used a rebounding advantage to help trim Penn State's big lead down to one and had three chances at a game-tying three-pointer in the final minute. But on Friday, ODU owned the glass by a margin of 36-22. Of course, it's kind of hard to get rebounds when the opponent doesn't miss. The Monarchs (3-2) made 14-of-24 shots (58.3 percent) in the first half and then made 17-of-27 (70.8) in the second half.

The Paladins trailed by 20 with less than nine minutes to play Friday before flipping a switch defensively. Utilizing a full-court press, Furman forced turnovers and rallied. But unlike Thursday, there were never any potential tying shots as it could never get the lead to less than four. Also unlike Thursday, there was a much more subdued postgame locker room after a five-point loss to a Sun Belt team as opposed to Thursday's five-point loss to a Big Ten team.

"We're just not a team right now that embraces the importance and urgency of the defensive end of the floor consistently enough," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "We've had two scrimmages where we gave up 80 points and today we gave up 80. You're just not going to win games giving up 80 points and you can't expect to.

"They competed harder than we did today and that's the most disappointing thing."

While ODU shot nearly 60 percent in the first half and the Paladins shot 34.6 percent, it was still just a 34-27 game at the break. Furman had chances to make it tighter, but after Tyrese Hughey's layup with 7:23 left it made just two of its last 12 shots of the half.

"We've played eight halves of basketball with four mediocre to bad first halves and four decent second halves. I wouldn't say today was a decent second half even though we scored 50," Richey said. "We're just not coming out from the start, sitting down and saying, 'look, this is how we have to be.'

"We've got some key players that just don't have the discipline right now defensively. ... That's on me though. If I've got them out there and they're not doing it, that's for me to correct. This team can still be really, really good, but today is a disappointing game."

That end of the first half futility was part of a nine-and-a-half minute span in which the Paladins never made consecutive shots. There was also an eight-and-a-half minute stretch like that in the second half during which the Monarchs pushed their lead to 20. Meanwhile, ODU never missed more than two consecutive shots the entire game. The Monarchs made their first five shots of the second half, made five straight in the middle of the second half and made their last five shots of the game.

A play that summed up the day came early in the second half when Mike Bothwell drove in for a tough layup in one of those rare hot spurts when Furman made three consecutive shots. With no one in his face or really near him at all after the layup, Bothwell yelled and got called for the first technical of his career. ODU went on a 19-7 run over the next five-and-a-half minutes to push the lead to 63-44.

"I was just saying 'and one' trying to fire up our team. I wasn't trying to show up anyone," Bothwell said. "Today, I think our timidness kind of sparked their confidence."

The Monarchs lead reached 20 with 8:41 left before Furman went on a 15-2 run to cut the lead to 69-62 with 5:15 remaining on a Marcus Foster jumper. J.P. Pegues' driving layup sliced ODU's lead to 73-66 with 2:20 left before the Monarchs deflated whatever air was left in Furman's balloon. ODU's Ben Stanley made one free throw and missed the second, but the Monarchs got the offensive rebound and scored off it to push the lead to 10 with 1:42 left.

Bothwell hit a three, but Stanley answered with a dunk. Jalen Slawson hit a three, but ODU's Chaunce Jenkins answered with a jumper in the paint. Pegues hit a long three to cut the lead to 81-77 with 10 seconds left, but that wrapped up the Paladins' scoring.

"I'm proud about what I did offensively, but I feel like I could've done a better job of leading the team defensively," Pegues said. "They just bully-balled us. They were the more aggressive team."

Bothwell had 23 points, five assists and two steals to lead Furman, while Pegues had a career-high 20 points and five assists. Slawson finished with 15 points, four assists and four steals, but had six of Furman's 11 turnovers. Foster was the lone other Paladin in double figures with 10 points.

After a career-high day of 15 points and 11 rebounds on Thursday, Hughey only took one shot in 10 minutes off the bench Friday as he was saddled with four fouls. Furman had just five bench points as a team.

"Our two guards did all we could ask of them today. They had 43 points and 10 assists. We can't ask them to do everything," Richey said. "At some point, somebody's going to have to help them.

"J.P. was definitely a positive, which was no surprise to me. I don't think people have enough patience in the fact that this is a new role for him. He's had to get comfortable in that role. The best thing about what J.P. did today was that he fought. He wasn't timid."

Furman will wrap up play at the tournament Sunday at 10:30 a.m. The Paladins will take on South Carolina in the seventh-place game.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Paladins hope to boost resume against Wofford

Furman defensive end Jack Barton has blocked three kicks and
broken up four passes this season. Photo courtesy of Furman

While the Furman football team's last two games may have been the biggest of the season considering who it played and how it did, those results only make every next game bigger. So when the 12th-ranked Paladins host Wofford in the regular season finale Saturday at noon, it will also be a big one for plenty of reasons.

After improving to 3-1 against FCS ranked teams this season following wins over Chattanooga and Mercer, the Paladins have secured second place in the Southern Conference. Furman (8-2, 6-1) could still gain a share of the conference title with a win combined with a Mercer win at Samford. A victory would also give Furman nine wins for the first time in 17 years. This is also a rivalry game and just Wofford's second visit to Paladin Stadium in Furman coach Clay Hendrix's six-year tenure.

The Terriers lost their first six games this season, but have played inspired football since head coach Josh Conklin abandoned ship. Two days after Conklin quit, Wofford had a respectable 28-14 loss at Samford and have gone 3-1 since then. After scoring 50 points over those first six games, the Terriers have scored 142 points in their last four games.

"We've got a Wofford team coming in that's clearly playing their best football of the year. They're really about where I thought they'd be. Their schedule was really front-end loaded," Hendrix said. "They're playing their best football, but we are too."

As for Furman's aspirations beyond Saturday, the Paladins very likely clinched an at-large bid to the FCS playoffs last week at Mercer. They probably don't want to test that theory with a loss to an improved, but still 3-7 Wofford squad. Instead, Furman will try to boost its playoff resume. Earning one of the eight seeds, which guarantee a first-round bye and a second-round home game, may be a long shot but it's not an impossibility.

A team that could end up having an impact on Furman's seed chances is Samford. All FCS projections currently have the Bulldogs as anywhere from a fifth to an eighth seed. It makes me wonder if a Samford loss at home to a Mercer team that the Paladins just beat on the road could flip Furman to a seed and the Bulldogs to a non-seed. On the other hand, a Samford win might only boost the Paladins' resume. In that scenario, Furman's only two losses would be to a one-loss Clemson team and a Samford team with no FCS losses.

For more on Furman's playoff possibilities, here's a story I wrote for The Greenville News this week:

'Cujo' the secret to special teams' success

If there was ever a player of the game for a defensive end who only had three tackles, Jack Barton could've gotten it last week in Furman's 23-13 win at Mercer. The Bears' second possession began at their own three-yard line following a great punt by Ryan Leavy. On the first play, Barton batted Fred Payton's pass up in the air and just out of Braden Gilby's reach for what would've been an interception in the end zone for a touchdown.

After Furman broke out on top 10-7 with a touchdown late in the first half, Mercer looked to swing momentum back with a field goal on the final play of the half. Barton busted through up the middle and easily blocked the 30-yard attempt. It was Barton's third blocked kick of the season, tying Matt Sochovka for the team lead.

After the Paladins took a 17-7 lead midway through the third quarter, Mercer drove to the Furman 33 in desperate need of points. On a third-and-nine play, Barton batted Payton's pass back to Payton who caught it for a 10-yard loss and the Bears punted on the next play. On the final play of the third quarter, Barton and Xavier Stephens combined for a sack on a Mercer third down. That helped lead to a field goal that gave the Paladins an insurmountable 23-7 lead.

"I'm so proud of Jack Barton. He started the year on the second team defensive line, but then J.J. (Jeremiah Jackson) went down and just to see how far he's come," Sochovka said. "In the offseason, he was working his tail off getting bigger. Now everything's coming to fruition with all these plays he's making. He's just playing free and having fun."

While that batted ball back to Payton doesn't count as a pass breakup since it was caught, Barton is still one shy of the team lead with four pass break-ups. As a team, Furman has 41 PBUs this season. That's the most in a year since the 1990 squad had 50 in 14 games. Sochovka and Barton have gotten the glory on the Paladins' kick blocking unit, but Sochovka says there's another real MVP of the unit.

"Cujo, Cameron Coleman, is the unsung hero of it all. Big zero anchors the middle and lines up on the guard. Me and Jack are kind of in the gaps and Cujo takes all the heavy lifting for us by knocking them (blockers) back," Sochovka said. "He doesn't show up on the stat sheet, but what he does for me and Jack is awesome."

A different kind of Senior Day

Prior to Saturday's game, Furman will honor its senior players. It doesn't necessarily mean fans won't see those seniors again next season though.

"Senior Day's a little different than it used to be. I think we'll have some guys that will be recognized Saturday that will actually be playing next year," Hendrix said. "I've just left all that up to them."

Gilby earns SoCon weekly honor

Furman linebacker Braden Gilby earned SoCon Defensive Player of the Week honors for his 12-tackled performance at Mercer. He had three tackles-for-loss and one of the Paladins' five sacks, which doubled the total allowed by the Bears this season. Gilby leads Furman with 71 tackles on the season, including 13.5 for-loss and four sacks.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Furman rally falls short in Charleston opener

Tyrese Hughey had career-highs in points (15) and rebounds (11) in
Furman's 73-68 loss to Penn State Thursday. Photo courtesy of Furman

CHARLESTON - The last time Furman played in a neutral-site tournament, Mike Bothwell's three-point play in the final seconds lifted the Paladins to a one-point win over Texas-Arlington at Elon on the day before Thanksgiving in 2019. On Thursday afternoon at TD Arena, history did not repeat itself - twice.

Bothwell had two potential game-tying three-pointers rattle in-and-out no good in the final minute as Furman fell to Penn State, 73-68, in the opening round of the Shriners Children's Charleston Classic. The Paladins (2-1) move on to face Old Dominion in Friday's consolation round at approximately 2 p.m.

Bothwell, who's hit so many clutch shots in his terrific career, finished with a game-high 26 points. He also had six rebounds, four assists, no turnovers and nearly led Furman to an epic comeback as Penn State led by as many as 21 in the first half.

"Credit to Penn State. (Coach) Micah (Shrewsberry) has done a great job of turning that program around pretty quickly," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "They came out with a lot of confidence and we ran into a buzzsaw. They were making everything.

"I just went for the kill (at the end). I thought we needed to tie it up and we got a couple of great looks. Mike was hot and I'm always going to ride with Mike."

Furman actually jumped out to a 9-5 lead just more than four minutes in. But over the next nine minutes, Penn State went 15-of-17 from the floor. The Nittany Lions only had seven offensive rebounds all day, but they grabbed one after each of those two misses. That run turned a four-point deficit into a 41-21 Penn State lead with 6:44 left in the first half.

The Paladins began chipping away. The Nittany Lions had just three free throws and one made field goal the rest of the half to take a 46-29 lead at the break. Furman finally got the lead down to single digits at 63-54 on Jalen Slawson's dunk with 8:15 left. After a fantastic cross court pass from Slawson, Tyrese Hughey sliced the lead to 69-68 on a three-pointers with 1:48 left.

"We started switching everything (defensively) the last five minutes of the first half," Richey said. "That's what we did the entire second half and fortunately we found a great rhythm offensively. We gave ourselves a chance to get back in the game."

Furman could never make it back all the way though. With 59 seconds left and the Paladins trailing 71-68, Bothwell's open three-pointer at the top of the key went back rim, front rim, backboard and off.

It was still 71-68 when J.P. Pegues' three from the top of the key bounced off no good, but Tyrese Hughey grabbed the offensive rebound. Bothwell's next try from the top of the key went back rim, front rim, twirling on the base of the rim and off. Penn State got that rebound and Seth Lundy hit a pair of free throws to seal the win.

"The first shot was off a set we run in practice a lot. I hit the shot in practice, so I was confident," said Bothwell. "The second one, I definitely thought was going down. ... I've made a lot of tough (late) shots, but you can't make them all I guess.

"I feel like today was a game we will be able to use to push us through tough games in the future."

Hughey had the game of his collegiate life as he finished with 15 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks in 23 minutes off the bench. He helped Furman outrebound its Big Ten opponent, 40-32, including 14 offensive boards. Slawson finished with 10 points, seven assists, six rebounds and two blocks.

"Rebounding has been an emphasis all offseason. We know we're among the smallest teams in the country, so it's important," said Hughey. "If we miss a rebound (in practice), we've got to run. So it's been ingrained in us."

Lundy finished with 20 points and seven rebounds for Penn State (4-0), while Jalen Pickett had 20 points and seven assists.

In Thursday's second game, Virginia Tech downed Old Dominion, 75-71. Chaunce Jenkins had a game-high 24 points, six rebounds and four assists in 31 minutes off the bench for the Monarchs (2-2). ODU leading scorer Ben Stanley, who entered averaging 17.3 points per game, was held to eight points on 4-of-14 shooting.

"As a coach, on the sidelines you watch them hit everything and feel like it's an avalanche. To see your team stay in there and just be resilient, that's the sign of a good team," Richey said. "We're way past moral victories, but it does give you hope to see a team get down like that and not lay down.

"We will respond tomorrow. We've got to come out and fight."

Paladins set for SoCon reunion in Charleston

Jalen Slawson blocks a shot during Furman's 89-74 win
over Belmont last Friday. Photo courtesy of Furman

For about the past eight years, the Furman men's basketball program has transformed from woeful to wonderful. On Thursday, one of the fruits of that labor arrives as the Paladins are set to participate in a big-time in-season tournament for the first time.

Furman (2-0) faces Penn State (3-0) at 11:30 a.m. Thursday in the opening game of the Children's Charleston Classic at TD Arena, the College of Charleston's home court. The eight-team tournament, which continues Friday and concludes Sunday, will feature some familiar faces to the Paladins. The winner of Furman-Penn State, which will be broadcast by ESPNU, will face the winner of Virginia Tech-Old Dominion at noon Friday.

"This is going to be fun. We've never been in an ESPN event before. This is part of what we're trying to do - continue to build firsts," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "We're going to play some really good teams, starting with Penn State. I've got a lot of respect for (Penn State coach) Micah (Shrewsberry).

"There's a lot of good food in Charleston and there's going to be some good basketball down there too."

Thursday's leadoff game looks to be the best matchup of the opening round, according to Sagarin ratings. The Paladins are currently 62nd in Sagarin, while the Nittany Lions are 29th. Penn State is led by preseason All-Big Ten selection Jalen Pickett, who's averaging 14.3 points, nine assists and six rebounds per game thus far. In the Nittany Lions 68-62 win over Butler Monday, Pickett had the second triple-double in school history with 15 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds. He also had two steals, a block and no turnovers.

Furman is led by preseason All-Southern Conference picks and fifth-year seniors Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson. Bothwell had 25 points, while Slawson had 17 points and 12 rebounds in the Paladins' big 89-74 win over Belmont last Friday. That victory vaulted Furman up to No. 3 in this week's College Insider Mid-Major Top 25, behind top-ranked Gonzaga and No. 2 St. Mary's.

Slawson, who grew up not too far from TD Arena in Summerville, is 18 points away from becoming the 50th Paladin in school history to score 1,000 career points.

The rest of the field will make for a little SoCon reunion. Other matchups Thursday:

Virginia Tech (3-0, No. 40 in Sagarin) vs. Old Dominion (2-1, No. 204), 2 p.m., ESPN2: Virginia Tech is coached by Wofford legend Mike Young. Young, a four-time SoCon coach of the year, has guided the Hokies to the NCAA Tournament each of his first two full seasons in Blacksburg, including an automatic bid last season as ACC Tournament champions. This will be a rare game where Young (369 career wins) has fewer wins than his counterpart as the Monarchs' Jeff Jones is 540-401 in his 33 years as a head coach.

Colorado State (3-0, No. 75) vs. South Carolina (2-0, No. 112), 5 p.m., ESPNU: Well, the tie-ins here are pretty obvious. Colorado State coach Niko Medved is the one who began steering the Furman program out of the grave 10 years ago. Medved, the 2017 SoCon coach of the year, guided the Rams to the NCAA Tournament last season. USC is coached by reigning SoCon coach of the year Lamont Paris, who led Chattanooga to the big dance last season. The Gamecocks are led by freshman sensation G.G. Jackson and former Citadel and Byrnes High standout Hayden Brown. Both are averaging 15 points per game.

Davidson (3-0, No. 90) at College of Charleston (2-1, No. 133), 7 p.m., ESPNU: Davidson is coached by Matt McKillop, son of legendary coach Bob McKillop. After 33 seasons as Davidson head coach, Bob McKillop announced his retirement in June. McKillop, a nine-time SoCon coach of the year, guided the Wildcats to seven SoCon Tournament championships in his career. College of Charleston was a member of the SoCon from 1998 to 2013. In 1999, the Cougars won the SoCon championship after going 16-0 in league play that regular season.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Furman defense answers the bell at Mercer

Braden Gilby had 12 tackles and one of the Paladins' five sacks in
Furman's 23-13 win at Mercer Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

MACON, Ga. - On the first play of the game in Furman's showdown at Mercer Saturday, linebacker Bryce McCormick blitzed up the middle and tossed Bears quarterback Fred Payton to the ground for a loss of eight yards. And just like that, the tone was set for the day.

Quarterback Tyler Huff was spectacular. Wide receiver Joshua Harris had the game of his collegiate life. Special teams units continued their remarkable season. But the biggest part of the 13th-ranked Paladins' 23-13 win at No. 14 Mercer Saturday had to be the defense.

A Mercer offense that was averaging 40.3 points per game was held to 13. A Mercer offense that was averaging 203.9 yards rushing per game was held to 50 on 30 attempts. A Mercer offense that converted 51.8 percent of its third downs converted 5-of-16 (31.6 percent). A Mercer offense that had allowed only five sacks all season allowed five on Saturday.

"They played their butts off. We had to contain the quarterback and we sacked him a number of times and hit him a bunch. ... They couldn't run the ball and we could, and I thought that would be huge," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "I just couldn't be prouder of our group. When you think about what happened in the Samford game and to come back and work like they have, I can't say enough about our kids and our coaches."

Following it's third win this season against a ranked team it sure feels like the Paladins (8-2, 6-1 Southern Conference) punched their ticket to the FCS playoffs Saturday. The other half of "showdown Saturday in the SoCon" took place at Chattanooga, where Samford posted a 35-24 win to lock up the league's automatic bid to the playoffs.

Saturday marked Furman's fifth consecutive victory on the road. The Paladins last accomplished that feat in the first road game of the 1990 season after winning it's last four road trips in 1989.

What was truly remarkable about Saturday's defensive effort was how it played out for Furman. In an equally big game two weeks earlier, the defense was terrific but rarely blitzed and had no sacks in a 24-20 win over Chattanooga.

Furman and Mercer (7-3, 5-2) are two of the leading teams in the country in forcing turnovers, but there was none on Saturday. The defense found itself in situations that felt like a turnover though as the Paladins' offense went 0-for-3 on fourth down. After all those changes in possession, Furman's defense allowed only one first down. That one came on a fake punt run and the Bears punted again four plays later anyway.

"It feels great to win. It would've felt better if Samford lost, but you've just got to go out and control what you can control," said Braden Gilby, who had 12 tackles, including three tackles-for-loss and a sack. "Our front seven was really physical today.

"This team is different from any other I've been a part of. The whole team is ready to play until January if we're given the opportunity. ... The mentality of this team has changed this year. We're having fun playing because winning's fun."

Saturday's game featured a wild second quarter in which Furman defensive end Jack Barton was flagged for targeting, but had it overturned after a review. Barton staying in the game proved to be vital.

Ty James, one-half of Mercer's dynamic duo of receivers, gave the Bears a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter on his SoCon-best 11th touchdown catch this season. But late in the quarter, James was ejected for targeting for a hit on Cally Chizik on a punt return that resulted in Chizik leaving the game as well.

On Furman's ensuing drive following that play, Huff directed yet another two-minute offense score this season. After Huff scrambled for 35 yards to the Mercer seven-yard line, the Paladins faced a third-and-goal two plays later. Huff took a shotgun snap to his left, turned back to his right, pump faked a Mercer defender's soul out of his body and raced to the end zone for a touchdown.

"It was frustrating up to that point. We were driving and moving the ball, but just not finishing. We've been pretty good at the two-minute offense all year and that really lifted us," said Huff, who finished with 369 yards of total offense. "Our defense played phenomenal today. To hold an explosive team like that to 13 is amazing. Hats off to them."

Trying to avoid kicking to the other half of that dynamic receiving duo, Mercer's Devron Harper, Furman squibbed the ensuing kickoff and Mercer's possession began at its own 47 with 32 seconds left. The Bears reached the Paladins' 14-yard line, but their field goal attempt on the final play of the half was blocked by Barton as Furman took a 10-7 lead into the break. That marked the third blocked kick this season by Barton, matching Matt Sochovka for the team lead.

Given how the first half went, it felt like a two-score game could be bigger than usual on Saturday. Midway through the third quarter, Huff and Harris provided that. Huff delivered a perfect pass over the middle to a streaking Harris, who pinballed off a pair of defenders on his way to a 56-yard touchdown as Furman pushed the lead to 17-7.

"When I broke, I knew I had him beat on the outside but I saw the other defender coming over. The first thing that went through my mind was ball security, so I tucked the ball," said Harris. "Once I had it, it was like a boom-boom play. I bounced off them and from that point, it was my head down looking for the end zone."

The Paladins scored on each of its next two possessions on Ian Williams' field goals to take a commanding 23-7 lead with 9:16 left in the game. Williams went 3-for-3 on field goals Saturday and the Furman long kicker has made 9-of-11 this season.

Payton hit Travion Solomon for an 11-yard touchdown on a fourth down play with 6:04 left. But on the two-point try to make it a one-score game, Payton was stonewalled by Gilby well short of the goal line.

Mercer only had one more possession the rest of the way. It began with 3:58 left at the Bears' eight-yard line after a fantastic 49-yard punt by Ryan Leavy bounced out of bounds. After Harper's 14th reception of the day (for 192 yards) converted one fourth down, McCormick and Luke Clark combined for Furman's fifth sack on the next play. Payton's next fourth down pass was broken up by Hugh Ryan and the Paladins were able to kneel out the clock.

Huff completed 19-of-31 passes for 293 yards, while rushing 10 times for 76 yards. Harris had five receptions for a career-high 146 yards receiving. Dominic Roberto finished with 69 yards rushing on 17 attempts and also had three receptions for 65 yards.

"There some good quarterbacks in our league, but if there's a better guy than Tyler I'd like to know who he is," said Hendrix. "He's a winner. He's tough and I'm glad he's wearing purple."

Furman wraps up the regular season by hosting Wofford next Saturday at noon. A Paladin win combined with a Mercer victory at Samford would give Furman a share of the SoCon championship.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Paladins set for showdown Saturday in SoCon

Furman coach Clay Hendrix addresses his team following the
Paladins' 24-20 win over Chattanooga. Photo courtesy of Furman

There have surely been bigger single Saturdays of Southern Conference football than this week's, but it's hard to remember since it's been so long ago. The top four teams in the league, all of whom haven't lost to anyone else below them in the standings, square off in the penultimate week of the regular season.

By the end of the day, No. 13-ranked Furman could either be in a three-way tie for first place, alone in second place, a two-way tie for third or alone in fourth place. The Paladins (7-2, 5-1) play at No. 14 Mercer (7-2, 5-1) at 3 p.m., while No. 10 Samford (8-1, 6-0) plays at No. 11 Chattanooga (7-2, 5-1) at 1:30.

All four team resumes are strikingly similar. Each one has a loss to an FBS team from a Power-5 conference. Furman's lone league loss came against Samford on Oct. 1. Mercer's only SoCon loss came at Chattanooga on Oct 22. Chattanooga's lone league loss came at Furman on Oct. 29. Samford can clinch at least a share of the SoCon championship with a win Saturday. A win by the Bulldogs combined with a win by the Paladins Saturday would secure Samford with the league's autobid to the FCS playoffs.

That 24-20 victory for the Paladins over the Mocs vaulted them up the top 25 poll and into the FCS playoff discussion. Mercer rebounded from the 41-21 loss at Chattanooga with a 55-13 win at VMI the next week. The Paladins and Bears each had their bye week last Saturday.

"The bye came at a really good time for us, but we're excited to get back at it this week and excited to go play," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said at his weekly press conference Monday. "It will be an even bigger challenge than Chattanooga because we're going to their place."

Playing Mercer anywhere this season has been a challenge for most. The Bears lead the SoCon and are fifth nationally in scoring offense averaging 40.3 points per game. Mercer is second in the league in scoring defense, allowing 18.9 points per game. It's second in total offense (463 yards per game) and leads the league in total defense (allowing 291.8 yards per game).

Coastal Carolina transfer Fred Payton ranks third nationally in passing efficiency at 181.5 for Mercer this season. He's thrown for 2,242 yards with 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions. All of those picks have come over the last three games, including three apiece at Chattanooga and VMI. Payton has a dynamic duo of wide receiver targets in Devron Harper and Georgia transfer Ty James, who each have caught 10 touchdowns this season. Harper, a Gardner-Webb transfer, also has four rushing touchdowns and has returned a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown.

Furman will certainly have to play better against Mercer than it did last season. The Paladins got a field goal on their opening possession against the Bears last fall and then went on to a 24-3 home loss. 

"Looking back at last year, I did a poor job of getting us ready to go. We were really struggling offensively with no confidence. Mercer was the aggressor in that game. Sometimes that's not an easy thing to admit, but they were," Hendrix said. "I do think we're a much different team this year."

It's conceivable that Furman could take a relatively close loss Saturday, not fall out of the top 20 next week, beat Wofford to end the regular season and still earn a bid to the FCS playoffs. A victory at Mercer Saturday would seemingly lock the Paladins into a playoff bid no matter what happens against Wofford.

You never know for sure with the playoff committee, especially after Furman was snubbed in 2018 when it shared the SoCon title. This 2022 squad currently has a better resume than that team that went 6-4 overall though.

Senior center Evan Jumper is one of a handful of Paladins who started the school's last playoff game, a 42-6 loss at Austin Peay in 2019. While that feels like an eternity ago given what's gone on in the world since then, Jumper admits that game lingers in the back of his mind. He would love to get another shot at the postseason this year, but he knows he can't afford to think ahead.

"Winning championships and making the playoffs is what you come here to do. So of course, you're always thinking about it but this game is the next step to making the playoffs," Jumper said. "So it's in the back of your mind, but your sole focus is on Mercer."

That focus on Mercer comes with a new level of confidence. That boost was provided by the win over Chattanooga.

"It was incredible. Probably my favorite moment for Furman football during my time here. I don't think teams in years past would've won that game," Jumper said. "I felt like we broke through a little bit and beat some demons."

Safety Hugh Ryan, who was named the SoCon's defensive player of the month for October thanks to his current three-game interception streak, agreed with Jumper about the excitement following the win over Chattanooga. But he added that it makes him hungry for more. Ryan is used to chasing rings this time of year after losing just one game of varsity football at Dutch Fork High, where he won three state championships.

"It makes you want to experience it again and again," Ryan said. "Becoming addicted to that feeling will help us keep chasing our goals."

Bothwell, Slawson help Paladins top Belmont

Mike Bothwell dunks during Furman's 89-74 win
over Belmont Friday. Photo courtesy of Furman

As most sequels go, Furman-Belmont part two Friday wasn't quite as scintillating as the masterpiece of basketball these teams performed against each other last year. But for the Paladins, it had a much happier ending. While it was a team effort in every sense of the word, Furman's two leading men powered their team to an 89-74 win before a raucous crowd of 2,092 at Timmons Arena.

When Belmont rallied from an early 11-point deficit to forge a 37-37 tie at the half, it appeared we might be in for another barnburner like last season's 95-89 overtime win for the Bruins. But after missing most of Monday's second half with a scary thumb injury, Jalen Slawson had a double-double in Friday's second half with 13 points and 11 rebounds. Mike Bothwell also scored 13 of his game-high 25 in the second half as the Paladins (2-0) pulled away for the win.

"I want to thank the students, fans and administration. Everybody that put in work to get the energy like it was out there tonight. ... That certainly had an effect in our performance. It really energized us in the second half," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "The beautiful thing about tonight was that we only had nine that could play and all nine of them contributed to that win."

There was some concern about Slawson's availability for Friday's game after clearly being in severe pain on Friday. X-rays revealed no fracture or sprain, but a badly bruised right thumb. Slawson credited men's basketball athletic trainer Justin Games with helping him get ready to go. Slawson practiced with it taped up on Wednesday and Thursday. He tested his shooting without tape on Friday and was able to play unencumbered Friday night. 

"If someone can find me a better athletic trainer please do so, because I've not seen one better in my life. ... He texted me every morning asking how I felt and what could he do for me," said Slawson, who finished with 17 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and three steals. "He knew once it wasn't broken that I wasn't going to let myself miss this game. So as soon as we got the X-ray back and saw that, it was all gas, no brakes."

Luckily for the fans in attendance and those watching at home, including undoubtedly many in the mid-major universe, Slawson was able to go because he put on a show. Timmons was rocking less than five minutes into the game after Slawson had a no-look pass to Garrett Hien for a dunk followed by a Bothwell steal and slam that gave Furman a 10-5 lead at the first media timeout.

As of that timeout, which came at the 15:14 mark, the Paladins were 5-of-6 from the field with no three-point attempts. I can't recall the last time Furman, which led the country in three-pointers made last season, did not attempt one in the first five minutes of a game. The Paladins ended up shooting 42.1 percent from three after hitting 8-of-19, but nearly all of those came organically rather than forced.

Back to Slawson's showtime. Near the end of the first half he pulled off the greatest Furman dunk I've ever seen, supplanting Stephen Croone's baseline drive jam at The Citadel nine seasons ago.

After a Marcus Foster block on one end, the ball got to Bothwell on the other. Bothwell drove inside the left arc before pulling up and lobbing a pass. As the ball sailed toward the basket I wondered what exactly Bothwell had done as there was no Paladin in sight. Suddenly, Slawson soared in with his back to the basket and threw home the reverse dunk. Replay revealed that Slawson was somehow alone in the right corner and started creeping to the bucket when he gave a quick right hand up to signal for the lob.

"Honestly, that's just God-given ability (for Slawson). I tried to throw an ordinary lob that was a little off-target, but he went and got it," Bothwell said. "That should be on SportsCenter for sure."

The biggest sequence of the game came with less than eight minutes left and Furman leading 59-53. After Hien was whistled for his third foul on what looked to be a bad call, he didn't exit and didn't hang his head. Over the next 52 seconds of game play, Hien rebounded the front end of the 1-and-1 free throw, drove for a layup, blocked a shot and buried a three-pointer that forced a Belmont timeout with the lead stretched to 64-53.

Belmont never got closer than nine points the rest of the way. Hien finished with 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting, five rebounds, three assists and no turnovers in 20 minutes of action.

"Garrett played his behind off tonight. ... Garrett's really coming along. As the year goes on, he's going to continue to get more physical," Slawson said. "He actually told me at halftime, 'they've got too many points in the paint. ... Let's go cut the paint off.' That's inspiring when you've got a guy younger than you coming up and telling you what we need to do."

Foster was the other Paladin in double figures with 11 points. Joe Anderson led the team with a plus-minus of plus-16 as he had nine points on three threes in 16:26 off the bench. Wake Forest transfer Carter Whitt added eight points, five assists and five rebounds in 22:11 off the bench. Furman outrebounded Belmont, 42-22.

"Slaw's stat stuffing all over the place. Mike was incredible, but Joe made some huge plays. Carter Whitt made some huge plays," Richey said. "(New starting point guard) J.P. (Pegues) played better tonight and he's going to get there. I'm just telling you, he's really, really good. ... I thought we came together as a team tonight."

Friday, November 11, 2022

Get your popcorn ready for Furman-Belmont II

Furman coach Bob Richey coaches during the Paladins' win
over North Greenville Monday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Mid-major college basketball fans rejoice. Furman and Belmont - the sequel - is set for Friday night at Timmons Arena. It's kind of fitting that the Paladins and Bruins are squaring off on a night typically associated with movie premieres. If there ever was an Oscar given for game of the year, last year's matchup between these mid-major powers would've surely been nominated.

Last year's game could've been compared to the first Rocky. From a Furman point of view, that goes right down to the protagonist losing in the end. Sorry if that's a spoiler for anyone, but it has been 46 years.

Furman fell at Belmont in overtime, 95-89, three days after toppling Louisville in overtime last season. It was a tough loss and the Paladins made mistakes, including a rare 20-turnover game. However from a fan's perspective, it was hard to be all that upset by it simply because of the entertainment value that game provided. The turnovers, which Belmont had 16 of as well, were basically due to tenacious defense by teams that take pride in deflections. The Bruins, who were ranked No. 2 behind Gonzaga in the Mid-Major poll at the time, had a lineup filled with seniors.

The Paladins (1-0) enter as the higher-ranked team this season at No. 6, while a younger Belmont squad is No. 21. Furman is coming off a business-like 91-55 win over North Greenville Monday. Later that night, the Bruins pulled out a thrilling 70-69 win over Ohio. After Ohio took its first lead since it was 15-13 on a three-pointer with 1.4 seconds left, reigning North Carolina Mr. Basketball Cade Tyson buried a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer.

"We came out on the wrong end of it last year, but that was a heck of a game and I expect the same thing Friday night," Furman coach Bob Richey said Monday. "We had Loyola (Illinois) in here a couple of years ago and the Wichita State NIT game. We want competitive mid-major matchups in Timmons Arena. I think those games are fun and it's great for the city and the school. You find out who you are by getting tested in games like these.
"That was a key last year. This is about winning the war, not the battle. At the mid-major level, you've got to be your best come conference play and specifically in those last four days at the tournament."

In last year's meeting in Nashville, Mike Bothwell had a game-high 23 points, along with seven rebounds, four assists and three steals. Jalen Slawson added 14 points, eight rebounds and five blocked shots.

Slawson will obviously be a key player Friday, if he's able to go. Slawson injured his right hand Monday with 17 minutes left in the game and never returned. Richey said it was kind of a wait and see situation following Monday's game and could not be reached for an update this week.

"You grow up dreaming about playing in meaningful games and It's a big opportunity we have Friday. ... Last year, we came up short and we feel like it's one we should've won so there's a lot to play for," Bothwell said. "Their crowd was amazing last year and we know our fans are going to show up and reciprocate that for us. ... It's going to be a lot of fun."

Belmont lost seven of its top eight scorers from last season, but this is a program used to reloading rather than rebuilding. The Bruins, who are in their first season in the Missouri Valley Conference after dominating the Ohio Valley Conference, have won at least 20 games in 15 of the past 17 seasons.

Belmont senior Ben Sheppard is a contender for MVC Player of the Year after averaging 16.2 points per game last season. He and Tyson had 18 points apiece to lead the Bruins Monday night. Sheppard also had seven assists, five rebounds and two steals.

"We all have programs that we watch as assistants growing up in the game and developing your philosophy. (Longtime coach) Rick Byrd would be a top five for me in what he was able to do at Belmont," Richey said. "We took a lot of that when we were trying to figure out how to build this here.
"My respect for their program is very high. I consider (fourth-year Belmont head coach) Casey (Alexander) a friend and I've got a lot of respect for what he's done. Following a legend isn't an easy spot to be in."

Selvy to be honored

Also in the spotlight at Timmons Arena Friday will be Furman legend Frank Selvy, who is scheduled to be on hand for "Frank Selvy Night." Furman will celebrate Selvy's upcoming induction into the  National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Mo. on Nov. 20. He will be honored at halftime of Friday's game and will sign autographs prior to it.

Selvy led the Division I in scoring as a junior with 29.5 points per game and as a senior with 41.7. Friday's "Frank Selvy Night" comes 69 seasons after the first one. On Feb. 13, 1954, the Paladins honored Selvy by feeding him the ball against Newberry. He made 41-of-66 field goals that night and finished with 100 points, an NCAA single-game record that still stands.

A two-time Southern Conference Player of the Year, a consensus All-American and United Press National Player of the Year in 1954, Selvy was a first-round pick in the 1954 NBA Draft by the Baltimore Bullets. Selvy was a two-time NBA All-Star over a nine-year career that was interrupted by three years of military service.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Furman women strive to overcome adversity

Furman's Tate Walters, a preseason All-Southern Conference pick, will likely miss
this season after suffering a torn Achilles tendon. Photo courtesy of Furman

It was already going to be a bit of an unusual sight Wednesday night when the Furman women's basketball team opens the 2022-23 season by hosting Erskine at 7 p.m. When the Paladins take the floor, it will be their first game without Tierra Hodges on the roster since March of 2016.

"Baby T" wrapped up her phenomenal career last year by leading Furman to the championship game of the Southern Conference Tournament and a 20-14 record - the Paladins first 20-win season under Coach Jackie Carson. The 2021-22 Southern Conference Player of the Year left as the school's all-time leader in rebounds (1,303) and fourth-leading scorer (1,719 points).

While there's always excitement with the start of a new season, some other unexpected roster news has made this year's start bittersweet. Junior guard Tate Walters is expected to miss the entire season after suffering a torn Achilles tendon. She got hurt in practice on Oct. 24, one day before it was announced that she made the All-SoCon preseason team and that Furman was picked second in the media poll after returning every starter besides Hodges.

Walters' injury came weeks after sophomore guard Niveya Henley tore an ACL and she's also expected to miss the season.

"We've now lost 40 points (per game) since last season (including Hodges). What those players have done for this program is going to be irreplaceable," Carson said at the league's Media Day on Oct. 26. "It was already going to hard to imagine not having Tierra Hodges, who was a sixth-year player for us and a phenomenal young lady.

"We lost our main engine and now we lost our other engine. ... (Tate) was running a sprint and just touched midcourt and went down. There was no contact."

Henley made 15 starts last season and averaged 4.0 points and 2.6 rebounds a game to earn a spot on the SoCon's All-Freshman team. Walters was a consensus All-SoCon pick last season after averaging 12.9 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. She also led the SoCon in assists (137), was second in the league in three-point shooting (37.3 percent) and fifth in steals (47).

While she routinely filled up slots all over a stat sheet, Walters' game went beyond that. Without her incredible performance in the last two minutes of regulation and then overtime against Chattanooga in last year's SoCon Tournament opener, the Paladins would've been one-and-done in Asheville. She simply willed her team to the win, which you can look back on here:

Before the injuries, there was unexpected great news for the program with the return of graduate forward Grace van Rij. After bidding farewell to Furman at the end of last season, van Rij decided to enter the school's new graduate program this summer and will use her final year of playing eligibility this season.

"We had a summer workout and it was not a good one. Grace came in from working a camp and I (jokingly) said, 'Grace, you wanna come back?' and she said, 'can I?' I said, 'you sure as heck can. You've got a COVID year,' " Carson said. "She had to call her mom and her mom was all about coming back. Within 45 minutes, it was done."

The 6-2 forward joined Walters on the preseason All-SoCon team after a breakout season last year. In her first season as a full-time starter, van Rij averaged 10.0 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. In addition to coming back for basketball, she's also enrolled in the strategic design Master's program.

"When I graduated I wasn't ready to say goodbye to Furman. I wasn't ready to say goodbye to my teammates, because of how close we are on and off the court. ... So I worked the little kids camp because I love that," van Rij said. "When Coach Carson asked me about coming back, I thought it was too late. She assured me it wasn't and suggested the strategic design program.

"I met with the head of the program and it was insane how perfect it was for me. I'm a very artistic person. This allows me to dive into that and play one more season of basketball, so I'm super excited about it."

The return of van Rij became all the more important after the key injuries the program has suffered this offseason.

"Oh my gosh, I couldn't imagine where we'd be without her after all that's happened. Just that leadership factor because if she wasn't here, we'd have no seniors," Carson said. "Niveya's a very vocal underclassman and has a strong personality in a lot of great ways, so Grace is going to have to step up in that kind of role as well.

"I'm a big believer that everything happens for a reason. We don't know the reason and we can't figure it out, but what we are going to figure out is how to battle through adversity and be a different team. It doesn't change our goals. It just changes our path to our goals."

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Slawson injured, but Paladins roll in opener

Jalen Slawson had a team-high 17 points before leaving with an injury in Furman's
91-55 win over North Greenville Monday. Photo courtesy of Furman

After a glitzy season-opening win over North Greenville in which Furman set single-game records for three-pointers (22) and assists (34) last November, Monday's season opener was more workmanlike but achieved the same goal. Six Paladins scored in double figures as Furman cruised past North Greenville, 91-55, at Timmons Arena.

On a night where the Paladins made just 5-of-25 three-pointers, they still managed to shoot 53.7 percent from the field as they made 31-of-42 shots inside the arc. Furman finished with 58 points in the paint, 42 points from the bench and 25 points off 21 Crusader turnovers. Jalen Slawson led the way with 17 points and three steals, but left at the 17:33 mark of the second half and didn't return.

Slawson was fouled on a drive to the basket, but immediately grabbed his right hand in pain. He stayed in to make 1-of-2 free throws, but exited at the next dead ball. Slawson went to the locker room and didn't return to the bench until there were only about three minutes left in the game.

"We don't have a lot of details on Slawson at this point," Furman coach Bob Richey said during the postgame press conference. "We will just have to see what comes of it.

"Last year in this game, we couldn't miss. Clearly that wasn't the case tonight, but it was good to see us keep our defensive intensity up for the most part. We shot 60 percent from the floor in the second half even though we shot just 23 percent from three. It's good for us to understand that there's going to be some nights when you're not making them and you've got to go generate baskets other ways."

Things got off to a slow start as Furman led 14-12 with less than 12 minutes left in the first half before Slawson and Mike Bothwell took command. Slawson started a 16-0 run on a jumper and capped it with a thunderous dunk off a steal with 3:48 left. Mike Bothwell had seven points in the run and also had an assist on perhaps the play of the night. Bothwell made an alley-oop pass that both Slawson and freshman Ben VanderWal went up for. VanderWal the lead man on the fast break and he made the catch and slammed it home for his first collegiate points.

After the Paladins took a 37-19 lead into halftime, Slawson gave Furman its biggest lead to that point of the night on a three-point play to open the second half. Bothwell hit a layup one minute later to push the lead to 23 before Slawson's injury on Furman's next possession.

"I think we came out and settled for some quick shots. We kind of didn't have an idea of how they were going to play us defensively. I think there was some opening night jitters and people stepping in to new roles," Bothwell said. "We eventually settled in, started getting to the paint more and guys started finishing at the rim."

While the Paladins were in control, others still needed to step up when Slawson left and that's what happened. Garrett Hien grabbed a career-high 12 rebounds before fouling out with 3:03 left. Tyrese Hughey scored a career-high 15 points in 18 minutes off the bench. And then there was VanderWal, who made quite an impression in his debut.

VanderWal finished with 11 points, seven rebounds and two steals and flashed all facets of his game over a 20-second stretch of the second half. The 6-7 freshman grabbed a rebound at the 12:26 mark and had an assist on Hughey's jumper in the paint six seconds later. Eleven seconds later, VanderWal made a steal near midcourt and had a clear path to the bucket for another dunk. That forced a North Greenville timeout with 12:06 left as Furman pushed the lead to 57-32.

"He's a player. He does a lot of different things and we can move him around. We can play him at the three or the four," Richey said. "He's one of those guys that's typically in the right spot. A month ago, I didn't know if he was going to play or redshirt and he really just took off once we started practicing every day.

"Early in camp, it was like 'maybe he will play,' and then it was like 'oh yeah, he's definitely playing.' He's got a unique confidence about him, but it's earned. He cares about all the small things."

Bothwell finished with 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the floor, including 2-of-3 on threes. Marcus Foster had 11 points, five rebounds, two steals and no turnovers. Wake Forest transfer Carter Whitt had 10 points, five rebounds, four steals and three assists off the bench. Joe Anderson led the Paladins in assists with a career-high six in 19 minutes off the bench. While J.P. Pegues didn't score, he had three assists and received praise from Richey for how he handled his first game as starting point guard.

Next up for Furman is a showdown with another top mid-major program Friday when the Paladins host Belmont at 7 p.m.