Saturday, January 27, 2024

Defense helps Furman end Samford's win streak

Garrett Hien (13) defends against Samford's Josh Holloway (1) during
Furman's 78-68 win Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

As the Furman men's basketball team toiled through an injury plagued first two months of the season, a prevailing idea by those in the know was that once the Paladins were at full strength they'd be just fine. That's proven to be the case, but here's the thing. "Fine" is no longer good enough for this program. As the great Roy Kent once said, "Don't you dare settle for fine!" (If only one person gets that reference, it's still totally worth it.)

A fully healthy squad has been more than fine the past couple of weeks. It's been great. Greatness has come from not only getting back key players, but also getting back to the biggest key to "Furman basketball" - defense. Coming off its best defensive performance of the season in holding Western Carolina to its season-low point total in a 65-62 win last Saturday, Furman faced another challenge Wednesday when Samford came to Greenville with the nation's longest winning streak at 17 consecutive games. The Bulldogs were also second in the nation in scoring offense, averaging 90.4 points per game.

The Paladins rose to the challenge, displaying the kind of defense Samford hasn't seen in two-and-a-half months. The Bulldogs were held to their lowest scoring output since they started the season 0-2 as Furman posted a 78-68 win at a nearly sold out Timmons Arena. In snapping Samford's winning streak, Furman (11-9, 5-2 Southern Conference) extended its to five consecutive games in what was the 150th victory of Bob Richey's career.

"It was a heck of a ballgame. We knew we were facing a team with the longest winning streak in the country and its a credit to our group for playing connected. ... I love the confidence they're playing with. They've got a little chip on their shoulder and they should," Richey said. "Everybody thinks Furman's an offensive team but in the analytics report tonight, the offense was red and the defense was green. The defense was great. It's why we won tonight. It's why we won Saturday. It's why we're having the improvement we're having.

"I also want to thank everybody that took the time to come out here on their Wednesday night. ... We fought for years to get these consistent crowds and get the energy where it's at and that's what makes it fun. Environment matters."

Neither team was cooking offensively early on as the game was tied 16-16 with less than eight minutes left in the first half. Coming out of the under-eight media timeout, J.P. Pegues missed a jumper, but Garrett Hien batted the rebound out of the scrum with enough force that PJay Smith was able to track it down in the backcourt. The ball made its way back to Hien, who found Alex Williams open for a three-pointer and Williams drilled it.

That ignited a 13-3 run and Furman never relinquished the lead. The fact that Smith and Hien were heavily involved in the play that put the Paladins in front for good would turn out to not be a coincidence. Later in the half, a Hien dunk extended the lead to 31-21 and made Timmons as loud as it has been all season. Hien and Smith, who started coming off the bench when this win streak began, led Furman in plus-minus Wednesday at plus-22 and plus-14, respectively.

"Garrett Hien was big tonight. ... We had to take him out of the starting lineup and just like our team, when everybody thought we were going to fold up and quit, he didn't. He kept working. He's been in the gym and he earned the right to play like he did tonight," Richey said. "PJay Smith was phenomenal. He played with confidence and swagger. ... When we've got (point guards) PJay, Carter (Whitt) and J.P. out there and you're trying to press them, it can be difficult especially if we keep two feet on the ground."

Furman got a pair of offensive rebounds on its final possession of the first half before Pegues found Marcus Foster for a layup that pushed the lead to 34-25 at the break. It's the fifth consecutive game - and 13th time this season - that the Paladins have scored on its final possession of the first half.

Samford shot 37.5 percent in the first half, including 0-for-9 on three-pointers. The Bulldogs 25-point output was its lowest in any half since their 98-45 loss at Purdue in the season opener on Nov. 6. 

"It's a very high-powered offense. They get the tempo really, really fast and you've got no chance if you don't guard them," Richey said. "I think our guys took tremendous pride in playing defense tonight."

Furman actually shot worse than Samford in the first half as it made 36.4 percent from the floor, but a difference was making six three-pointers. The Paladins, who've had at least 12 offensive rebounds in 11 of their last 12 games, also outscored the Bulldogs 12-2 on second-chance points in the opening half.

Samford got the lead down as close as four twice after halftime but Furman had a quick response each time. After the Bulldogs scored the first five points in the second half, Hien had a layup off an assist from Whitt. Samford used a 7-0 run to cut the lead to 44-40 with 14 minutes left before Foster found Smith for a three-pointer. That started a 12-3 run as the Paladins took command again.

Foster led Furman with 22 points, 11 rebounds, two steals and a block. After having just one double-double last season, Wednesday's was Foster's second in the past three games since returning from his knee injury. Williams made 4-of-6 threes and finished with 16 points, while Pegues scored 12 and Smith had 11. Whitt finished with six points, seven assists and five rebounds, while Hien had five points, four assists and two steals.

"I think we stayed composed and didn't try to force things against their press," Smith said. "I think we handled the pressure well and I think that's why we ended up getting the win."

Furman joined Purdue and VCU as the only teams to hold Samford under 75 points this season. VCU defeated the Bulldogs, 75-65, in game two this season. Achor Achor led Samford (17-3, 6-1) with 19 points, six rebounds and three blocks.

Furman will travel to Wofford Saturday for a 6 p.m. game. It will be televised locally by the CW Ch. 62.

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