Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Another defensive meltdown costs Furman in loss

J.P. Pegues had 19 points and eight assists, but Furman lost
to Mercer 82-75 Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

When the Furman men's basketball team hosted Mercer in Saturday's regular season finale, great moments in Timmons Arena history were highlighted during timeouts as this marked the final men's game in the building before it undergoes a $40 million makeover. It was the last game there until the 2025-26 season, as the transformation into something more closely resembling a Mid-Major arena will take more than a year to complete.

Those highlights primarily came from the last nine seasons. The Paladins won at least 11 games at Timmons each of those years and compiled a 114-20 home record over that time entering Saturday. Unfortunately for most of those in attendance Saturday, Furman's play was more of a tribute to the "bad old days" of the program when it posted three winning records at home over eight seasons from 2007-2015.

For the second consecutive game, the Paladins' defense was completely shredded after halftime. Mercer shot 63.3 percent from the floor (19-of-30), including 71.4 percent (5-of-7) on threes, in the second half on its way to an 82-75 win. After carrying an 18-game losing streak in the series entering this season, the Bears completed the season sweep of the Paladins.

"(Mercer coach) Greg (Gary) did a great job having his team ready to play. I though they played harder than we did, collectively," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "It's hard to win this game when you've got guys that don't want to guard and play connected. We had some guys that did and some that didn't.

"It's a game of connection, chemistry and energy. When you play in your home gym and get beat in all three categories, you can't be surprised by the result. It's on me. It's my job to get a team playing defense. It's my job to get a team that looks like they want to play defense and to get a team connected."

Furman (16-15, 10-8 Southern Conference) entered Saturday with 100 more made three-pointers than Mercer (15-16, 8-10) this season and left Saturday with 100 more as each team made nine. The problem was it took the Paladins 35 attempts to make nine, while it took the Bears just 15.

When the teams met earlier this season in Macon, Mercer hit just one three in each half and went 2-for-9 from beyond the arc. The difference that night was that the Bears dominated down low, outscoring the Paladins 48-32 in the paint. Although that battle was closer Saturday, with Mercer outscoring Furman 40-38 in the paint, the Bears got way too many open looks for three.

"(Mercer's three-pointers) would've been a surprise if we hadn't just given them to them. It's a credit to their ball movement, but I feel like it's a lack of detail on our end," Furman's J.P. Pegues said. "If we give these guys open looks, they're Division I basketball players, they're going to make some. We gave them open looks and when they see one fall and then another, they gain confidence."

The lack of active hands defensively for Furman was highlighted in points off turnovers and fast break points. While the Paladins had just three more turnovers (11) than Mercer (8), the Bears had a 14-5 edge in points off turnovers and a 12-3 scoring advantage on fast breaks.

Furman did outrebound Mercer 40-29, including 19 offensive boards. The Paladins outscored the Bears 18-4 on second chance points, but that was more of a product of Mercer shooting the lights out and Furman shooting like the lights were out. The Paladins trailed by only five at the half despite making just 11-of-34 (32.4 percent) field goals in the first half, including 3-of-16 (18.8 percent) three-pointers.

After the Paladins turned the ball over to open the second half, Mercer got half of its six offensive rebounds and half of its second-chance points on its opening possession. After missing their first three shots of the second half, the Bears didn't miss consecutive shots the rest of the game. From the 13:42 mark of the second half to the 4:29 mark, Mercer made 10-of-12 field goals to turn a four-point lead into a 72-59 lead.

The Bears led by nine with 1:37 left before Pegues hit a three. After a steal by Marcus Foster, Tyrese Hughey drew a foul and hit both free throws to slice the lead to 76-72 with 1:18 left. Mercer ran down all the shot clock on its ensuing possession before 5-foot-10 point guard Caleb Hunter made a tremendous left-handed layup over Foster to push the lead to six with 48 seconds left.

On Furman's next possession, Hughey grabbed an offensive rebound and fired to PJay Smith for a three-pointer that cut the lead to 78-75 as Furman called timeout with 33 seconds left. Hunter was trapped by a pair of Paladins in the corner and had to call Mercer's last timeout with 30 seconds left. The Bears were then able to beat the press and the Paladins had to foul with 25 seconds left. Jalen Cobb hit both free throws to push the lead to 80-75.

After Pegues missed a heavily-contested three, Hunter made a pair of free throws with 11 seconds left to seal Furman's fate. After starting the game with four blocked shots in the opening five minutes, Mercer got its seventh block on the Paladins' final shot of the day.

"I'm not sitting here saying everybody didn't play hard. Let me be real clear. Basketball is a game of connection. It's a game where you have to care about one another and understand how important team is. ... We didn't have a group that just quit. We were down 13 and the game looked like it was cooked and baked, but we fought back to a three-point game," Richey said. "Imagine if we wouldn't have given up wide open threes and would've have everybody crashing (for rebounds). And if we been the more physical, connected team playing with the best energy from a totality standpoint. Maybe it's a different outcome."

Pegues was just 1-of-7 from three, but finished with team-highs in points (19) and assists (8) for Furman. Smith had 17 points and six rebounds. Foster collected his fifth double-double this season with 13 points and 10 rebounds, but had another rough night shooting as he made 1-of-8 three-pointers. Smith and Foster had two assists apiece as they and Pegues combined for all but one of the Paladins' 13 assists. That trio also accounted for all of Furman's three steals with one apiece.

After scoring 28 points on 13-of-21 shooting against Furman the first time the teams played, Mercer's Jalyn McCreary had a game-high 21 points on 10-of-16 shooting Saturday. Meanwhile, freshman David Thomas had 18 points and six assists.

"Jalyn played well and he's playing as good as anybody in our conference on film. We at least made him have to do it on a high volume, but we didn't turn him over. He only had one. We tried to force him to play in crowds, but didn't do that well enough. ... It wasn't just McCreary today. They had four different guys make two or more threes," Richey said. "Marcus is a great shooter. The ball's just not going in from the perimeter for him right now. We will get a lot of shots up this week and get him back on track."

The loss left Furman tied for fifth-place with Wofford in the final SoCon standings. It's the lowest the Paladins have ended up in the standings since finishing in last place in the 2014-15 season. Furman finished at least third every season since until this year.

The Paladins will be the No. 5 seed at this week's SoCon Tournament in Asheville and will face fourth-place Western Carolina at approximately 8:30 p.m. in Saturday's quarterfinal round. The Paladins already knew they were locked into the 4/5 game no matter what happened against Mercer. Richey doesn't believe that factored at all in Furman's play Saturday, and he added that it certainly should not have.

"Heck no. I mean have some pride. You win today, you get the fourth seed. You want to be fourth or fifth? If I get to pick one of those two, I want to be fourth," Richey said. "We've got to make some decisions this week of what we're going to bring to Asheville. We've seen a side of this team that's high in effort, connectivity and defense and we look pretty good. But when you're at 1.24 (rating) on defense in your home gym, you can't expect to win games. Defense has to matter at some point. It's my fault."

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