Saturday, January 6, 2024

Outmanned Paladins fall in SoCon opener

Carter Whitt scored a career-high 23 points in Furman's loss
at UNC Greensboro Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

The Furman basketball team spent the non-conference portion of its schedule seemingly playing every game one or two players short of a fully healthy squad. When Southern Conference play began Wednesday in Greensboro, the injury list only grew longer. The Paladins opened conference play without their three leading scorers - Marcus Foster, J.P. Pegues and Alex Williams, who are averaging a combined 52.8 points per game. That left Furman with seven scholarships players available - two guards, one wing and four post.

If you're missing scorers, there's quite a few SoCon teams you'd probably rather face than a UNC Greensboro program built on defense, but that's the way the schedule opened. A new 1-3-1 defensive set necessitated by the injuries and a gutsy effort helped Furman hang around for the first half before the Spartans pulled away for a 79-68 win.

"We competed. I didn't think we were always smart, but we played hard. We're out there with triple big lineups and lineups we haven't played with all year. They had multiple opportunities to fold up with seven guys who are exhausted," Furman coach Bob Richey said on the Furman Radio Network's postgame show. "They laid it on the line the best they could with the situation we had.

"It looked like the game was about to really get away from us and then we'd make another little push. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough. That's just the storm we're in right now."

Staying out of foul trouble was obviously an imperative necessity Wednesday and the 1-3-1 defense, which Furman had not played all season, helped do that. At the same time, the defense itself was also effective early on. A pair of Carter Whitt free throws gave the Paladins a 19-13 lead midway through the first half.

Furman's first foul didn't occur until PJay Smith was whistled for one at the 9:03 mark of the first half. A jumper by Whitt gave the Paladins a 23-18 lead with 7:50 left in the half. The Spartans answered with a three-pointer by Donovan Atwell 14 seconds later. That triggered a 13-0 run capped by Atwell's three-pointer with 4:58 left that gave UNCG a 31-23 lead. At some points in the first half and particularly during this less than three-minute stretch, Furman fell into a rut of launching threes early in the shot clock on a night when slowing down things down seemingly was the plan.

The Paladins trailed by nine with just under four minutes left in the half before an 8-0 run capped by Cooper Bowser's three-point play cut the lead to 34-33 with 1:49 left. One of the most critical points of the game came on Furman's final possession of the half. Trailing 35-33, the Paladins played for the final shot hoping to tie or take the lead into halftime. Instead, UNCG's Kobe Langley poked the ball away from Whitt with nine seconds left and retrieved the ball in the paint on the other side of the court with six seconds left. Langley's layup missed, but Jalen Breath's tip-in before the horn gave the Spartans a 37-33 lead at the break.

"Carter really, really competed in situations that he's never been put in before tonight," Richey said. "On that particular play right before half, he goes the wrong way. ... If we get a bucket there, we go in tied. Instead, we turn it over and then give up the offensive rebound on the putback."

Each team had six turnovers in the opening half. While UNCG scored 11 points off those, the Paladins had zero points off them. That trend continued in the second half. Furman's first three turnovers turned into seven points for the Spartans which gave them a 49-38 lead with 16:41 to play.

"It felt like all theirs were pick-sixes," Richey said. "It seemed like the turnovers we got were more interior passes."

After Smith hit a three-pointer nine seconds into the second half to cut the lead to 37-36, Furman didn't make another field goal until Smith's three-pointer with 14:54 left. Furman's next field goal was another Smith three with 12:02 left.

Davis Molnar became the second Paladin with a field goal in the second half on a jumper with 10:57 left. That sliced the lead to 59-50. Atwell answered with a three on UNCG's ensuing possession and the Spartans led by double figures for much of the rest of the game. The only other time Furman got the lead to single digits was at 74-65 on another three by Smith with 2:39 left. Of course, that was answered on another three by Atwell on UNCG's next possession.

"We come out of the gate after halftime and execute a nice action right off the board, hit the three and cut it to one," Richey said. "Then for whatever reason, we just hit a lull right there."

The Spartans (10-4, 1-0) made 7-of-10 three-pointers in the second half to shoot 50 percent (11-of-22) from beyond the arc for the game. Meanwhile, Furman (6-8, 0-1) made just 7-of-31 (22.6 percent) threes. UNCG finished with 20 points off 12 Furman turnovers, while the Paladins had three points off of 12 UNCG turnovers.

"We won the glass (42-37 in rebounds). We won the free throw line (19-of-23 to 6-of-8). It's another night where we got beat on the three-point line. We lose the game by 11 and they win the three-point line by 12 with way less volume (of shots)," Richey said. "I thought that ended up being the difference in the game.

"We've got to keep fighting the good fight and I trust this group will do that. ... We've got to use this to figure out how this can help us."

Whitt was 5-of-20 from the floor, including 1-of-9 on threes, but made 12-of-13 free throws to finish with a career-high 23 points. Whitt also had six assists, four rebounds and four turnovers. Smith made 6-of-20 field goals, but his five three-pointers helped him score 19 points. He also had six rebounds and three steals.

Atwell and Keyshawn Langley had 17 points apiece to lead the Spartans, while UNCG big man Mikeal Brown-Jones returned from injury to put up 16 points and 11 rebounds.

Furman will have to quickly move on as another road challenge awaits Saturday night at Chattanooga. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. and the game will be televised locally by CW 62. It appears that Foster will be out for at least another week, while Pegues and Williams could be game-time decisions Saturday.

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