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."

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