Furman drops heartbreaker at Mississippi State

Furman senior guard Alex Hunter pours in a career-high 30 pts/photo courtesy of Furman athletics

Weary of travel and playing its second power six program in a 72-hour span, it would have been easy to mail it in when Furman saw its early 8-7 first-half lead turn into a 29-11 first half deficit, as Mississippi State began to roll in a place they simply refer to as ‘The Hump.’

Furman rallied all the way back to lead by as many as six points (64-58) in the second half with 3:51 remaining only to see Mississippi State outscore the Paladins 11-2 to close out the game strong, as the Bulldogs handed the Paladins a heartbreaking 69-66 setback Friday night at Humphrey Coliseum.

The Bulldogs improved to 8-3 on the season, while Furman dropped to 7-5 with one non-conference game remaining next week before beginning Southern Conference play. 

Head coach Bob Richey has his team fully bought in to the mantra “The Game Honors Toughness,” or TGHT for short. Furman was tough, but Mississippi State was tougher down the stretch when it had to be. That will serve as a learning moment for Richey’s Paladins to put in the bank to call upon later in the season when Furman may need that moment back. After all, that’s how the game of hoops gives back if you stay tough. 

The win by the Bulldogs came despite a career night from Alex Hunter, who led all scorers with career-best 30 points on 11-of-15 shooting from the field, which included a career-high 8-for-11 shooting performance from three-point land to go with one assist and a pair of rebounds. Hunter was one of three Paladins in double figures in the contest, with seniors Jalen Slawson (13 pts) and Conley Garrison (10 pts) to round out the double figure scorers.

Slawson finished the night connecting on 6-of-11 shots from the field, including 1-for-4 from three-point land. The Summerville, S.C., native also added eight rebounds, four assists and one steal. 

Garrison, a graduate transfer from Drury University, connected on 3-of-5 shots from the field, including 2-for-4 from three-point range, while also going 2-for-3 from the charity stripe.  Garrison also dished our four assists, recorded three rebounds and had one steal. 

The Bulldogs finished the night with four in double figures, with North Carolina grad transfer Garrison Brooks leading the way with 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field, including 2-for-5 from three-point land and was 4-for-6 from the charity stripe. Additionally, Brooks added four rebounds, a block, a steal, and an assist. 

Brooks was joined in double figures for the Bulldogs by both Iverson Mollinar and D.J. Jeffries, who added 14 points apiece while talented guard Shakeel Moore added 12. 

Both teams shot the ball well, with Furman connecting on 54.3% (25-of-46) from the field for the game, including making 51.9% (14-of-27) from three-point range in the game. The Paladins shot a blistering 64.0% (16-of-25) in the second half, including 50.0% (8-of-16) from three-point range in the second half. Furman out-scored the Bulldogs 42-34 in the second half after trailing 35-24 at the break. 

Mississippi State completed the contest connecting on 51.0% (25-of-49) from the field for the game, and finished the contest connecting on 31.3% (5-of-16) from three-point range. 

The Bulldogs finished the game holding advantages in total rebounds (29-23), second-chance points (11-8), points off turnovers (21-15), points in the paint (32-14), and total assists (17-16). Furman held advantages in fast-break points (10-4) and bench points. Furman’s 18 turnovers were the second-highest total of the season, with the only higher mark coming in an overtime loss at Belmont. 

How It Happened:

Mississippi State game out and imposed its will early in the opening half, and according to Bulldogs head coach Ben Howland, played some of its best defense of the season for the first 14 minutes of the contest, which inevitably led to the Bulldogs taking their biggest lead of the night, at 27-11, on a layup by Shakeel Moore with 5:24 remaining in the half.

Furman started the game decently enough, assuming an 8-7 lead on a Jalen Slawson three-pointer with 13:16 left in the half. However, Garrison Brooks answered with a three to give the Bulldogs the lead back, 10-8, and it would seemingly spark a six-minute span of basketball, which would see the Bulldogs take complete control of the basketball game.

Brooks’ jumper commenced what was an 18-0 Mississippi State run, which was one of the most demonstrative runs any foe had had against head coach Bob Richey’s Paladins the entire season. The 18-0 run was capped the way it started—a Brooks triple—as his latter triple extended the Bulldogs’ lead to 25-8 with 8:35 remaining in the opening half of play. 

The long scoring drought for Furman finally ended at the 7:37 mark of the opening half, as one of Hunter’s eight triples helped the Paladins trim the Bulldogs lead to 25-11. After the Bulldogs’ Moore scored the next four points on a layup and jumper, slowly, but surely, the Paladins began to take better care of the basketball and get in sync offensively. At one point in the opening half, the Paladins committed an uncharacteristic six-consecutive turnovers, as the Paladins committed six of their 18 miscues in the opening half of play alone. 

Hunter’s 14 first-half points literally kept Furman afloat, as they chipped away at the Bulldogs lead over the final five minutes of the half, eventually cutting the margin to 11 by the break. It almost seemed as if the 35-24 halftime score was a minor miracle, considering how poorly the Paladins had played the opening 20 minutes of basketball. Coupled with the second half at Chapel Hill on Tuesday night, which saw the Paladins score a season-low 22 points on 28.1% shooting, it almost seemed a continuation of the struggles in the latter half against North Carolina. 

With the second half in Chapel Hill, coupled with the opening 20 minutes at the Hump, Furman had managed to put together its worst consecutive 40 minutes of basketball of the 2021-22 season.  It would be followed by maybe its best half of the entire season. 

It wasn’t the shooting performance in Starkville that was the issue, as it was in Chapel Hill. After all, the Paladins ended up connecting on 42.9% (9-of-21) shots from the field in the opening half, which included a 54.5% (6-of-11) effort from three-point range.  It was the 12 turnovers and the 18-9 blitzing on the boards that had the Paladins rallying most of the opening frame. It was also another poor defensive effort in the opening half, which had seen the Bulldogs connect on 50.0% (14-of-28) shots from the field at the break. 

Hunter, who scored all but 10 of the points for the Paladins in the opening half of play, finished the opening frame by connecting on 5-of-7 shots from the field, while going 3-for-4 from downtown. Somewhat unbelievably so, Hunter would top that performance in the second half.

In the second half, however, Furman showed why many have said they are tournament caliber. Challenged at the break by head coach Bob Richey, the Paladins clawed back into the game. 

Furman hadn’t cut into Mississippi State’s lead any by the first media timeout of the second half, as the Bulldogs still held a Brooks’ layup with 15:44 remaining in the game ushered the teams to their respective benches for the first media of the second half with a 43-31 lead.

That’s when Furman started to find its shooting touch. Furman would finally throw its first haymaker of the night at the power six foe, which would ultimately culminate in Furman taking its first lead since that Slawson three in the opening half.

Over the next 8:31 of game action, Furman would turn the game completely on its head, commencing a 26-8 run to assume a six-point lead, at 57-51, with 7:13 remaining following Hunter’s eighth three of the game. The 26 points were two more than the Paladins had scored in the entire first half against the Bulldogs, and four more than in Chapel Hill in the second half. The run would start with an Alex Williams triple, as the freshman big man would get the Paladins within double digits with a three at the 15:01 mark of the second half, making it a 43-34 game. 

Following Cam Carter’s lone bucket of the night on the other end, which stretched Mississippi State’s lead back to double digits, at 45-34, with 14:02 left, the Paladins answered with a Slawson jumper in the paint. D.J. Jeffries added a pair of foul shots on the other end before to make it a 47-36 game. That would turn out to be the final double-digit lead of the night for Mississippi State.

Furman hit a quick spurt of seven-straight points to force a Bulldogs timeout. A layup by Joe Anderson, was followed by three-straight steals by Furman, with points coming after two of those thefts. A Hunter triple following a steal by Marcus Foster cut the deficit to six, at 47-41, with 11:14 remaining, and with just under 11 minutes remaining, Slawson’s over-play on a lazy Bulldogs pass led to a tip-away steal in the open court and a one-handed tomahawk slam on the other, cutting the Bulldog lead to four, at 47-43. 

Following a missed three by Jeffries on the other end with 10:30 left, Conley Garrison connected on a wide open triple 11 seconds later and Furman had trimmed the lead to one, at 47-46. Another Jeffries miss and a Slawson jump-hook in the lane with 9:31 remaining had seen Furman completely flip the game on its head, leading 48-47, marking the first time the Paladins had led in the contest since it was 8-7 with 13:16 left in the opening half. 

After Hunter’s final three gave the Paladins a six-point lead with just over seven minutes remaining, at 57-51, the Bulldogs would manage to score the next five points on an Iverson Mollinar three-pointer and a layup by Jeffries with 5:46 remaining to trim Furman’s lead to 57-56. 

Furman wouldn’t go away easily, however, as the Paladins scored seven of the next nine points to seemingly once again take control of the game, as the Paladins assumed a six-point lead once again when Garrison connected on two of three shots from charity stripe with 3:51 remaining to give Furman a 64-58 lead after having been fouled on a three-pointer. 

However, the Bulldogs would close the game strong, finishing off an 11-2 run over the final 3:51 to claim the win. A Jeffries three-point play the old fashioned way following a Mike Bothwell foul cut Furman’s lead in half, at 64-61, with 2:58 remaining. Then, a lazy inbounds pass by Hunter was stolen by Cam Matthews and dunked home on the other end, cutting Furman’s lead to one, at 64-63, with 2:41 remaining.

Following a 30 second timeout from the Paladins, a Slawson jumper in the paint helped the Paladins take a three-point lead once again, at 66-63, with 2:12 left. It would also prove to be Furman’s final points of the night. 

After a Slawson turnover and ensuing Hunter foul on Mollinar, the All-SEC guard connected on both free throws to get the Bulldogs within 66-65 with 1:16 remaining. Another Matthews steal and another Paladin turnover resulted in a Moore layup on the other end, and more importantly for the home team, a 67-66 Bulldog lead with 49 seconds remaining. Missed threes by Slawson and Garrison—both on good looks—gave Furman opportunities to re-take the lead.

After Mollinar’s 1-of-2 effort from the line, left it a 69-66 game with 7.4 seconds remaining, the Bulldogs had left the door cracked for a potential game-tying three by the Paladins. Despite attempts to foul on the inbounds, which would have put the Paladins at the line for a 1-and-1, the Paladins were able to get off a potential game-tying three from the top of the key from Hunter, but his 24-foot effort hit the front of the iron and the Bulldogs were able to hold on for a 69-66 win. 

The fifth loss of the non-conference slate marks the first time the Paladins have lost more than four games in the non-conference slate since going 8-6 in non-conference play in the 2016-17 season. 

Furman fell to 0-3 this season when it fails to reach 70 points.

Up Next:

Furman returns to Timmons Arena for its final non-conference game of the 2021-22 season when it faces Presbyterian (6-5) at Timmons Arena on Tuesday night. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. at Timmons Arena.

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