Furman overpowers Mercer

Furman’s fury unleashed in full measure against Mercer, but there’s a cautionary story to be told

Furman and Slawson went wild in the Bears Den Saturday evening

By John Hooper

Furman’s 80-50 road win at Mercer on Saturday night got me thinking…Good and bad…I’ve told this story the other way round, too. But this is what happens when Goliath’s story is told through a ‘David’-son lens.

This isn’t the recap you would or should expect if you really wanted a possession-by-possession breakdown of that 30-point blowout that took place in Macon last night, but its the one I am going to write. I am usually matter of fact in the ‘how it happened’ following each Paladin game.

But today we take a trip down a road of memories, paved with plenty of heartbreak.  There have been others like the 25-win App State team in 2006-07 season, which had its NCAA dreams dashed at the fingertips of a 38-point night from Dontaye Draper for CofC in an 89-87 thriller at the North Charleston Coliseum. 

Led by a young and energetic head coach, in Houston Fancher, that Mountaineer team had wins over Virginia, Central Florida and Vanderbilt to win the San Juan Shootout, and even went as far as to take out a half-page ad in the Indianapolis Star newspaper—home of the NCAA headquarters—and that still wasn’t enough to see a second team kick down the door as an at-large breakthrough in March.

It’s a warning all should very wisely heed, especially SoCon team’s like Chattanooga and Furman, swiping aside league foes quicker than a potential significant other on a digital device on one of those catfish apps, or whatever the kids call it when one of these things doesn’t match the other. 

I might not know a lot about basketball and all the Xs and Os and analytics that go into the modern game, but one thing with certainty is that a suddenly aging scribe of all things SoCon does know about is I’ve seen teams get absolutely heartbroken. Trust me, this wasn’t Furman, or even an era when the Paladins threatened all that often. There was a time when teams like Davidson and Appalachian State had to swallow the bitterest pill of all…The finality of losing in March despite a gaudy season of record-setting win totals. There truly is nothing like March Sadness in a one-bid mid-major.

I’ve watched my share of hoops. I’ve seen some great teams just miss it and fall flat. I remember not long after Davidson’s 1996 season reading an article, detailing how that was particularly hard for Bob McKillop to overcome in his coaching career. 

That team was flat out loaded. Stars abounded….Stars and veterans like Chris Alpert, Brandon “Ozone” Williams, Narcisse Ewodo, Ray Mineland and Jeff Anderson to name the core group. The internet is a great thing. Go look up those margins of victory and tell me only an un-wise person would have ever picked against those ‘Cats to lose to the other ones. But it happened in a shocker that, in truth, probably only Western Carolina could deliver. 

Mineland and Ewodo hailed from Cameroon, and they were indomitable Lions of the hardwood as a part of some of those early McKillop teams in the early to mid-1990s in the SoCon. The duo hailed from Yaounde, which is the largest city in a nation of nearly 27 million. But while their homeland was known more for their performance in the soccer World Cup in 1990 in Italy, it was guy’s like Ewodo and Mineland that were trying to help Davidson get back to its success it enjoyed in the SoCon in its previous stint. 

As it has been for so many before, it was the end of the road for McKillop’s mighty Wildcats, who boasted an average margin of victory of 18 points in league games that 1996 season. But the way it happened was unreal. If we’re talking power fives, we’re talking almost to Chaminade over Virginia unreal when Anquell McCollum’s Catamounts left the Greensboro Coliseum the unlikeliest of victors. 

A blank-faced McKillop could only look on as Jarvis Graham, Scott Scholtz and the smattering of WCU fans that believed enough to intermingle before Davidson’s ‘roman-like’ crowd in the Coliseum for what was sure to be a coronation more than a basketball game.

After all, the Wildcats entered the tournament title following a 92-77 shellacking of Billy Donovan’s Marshall Thundering Herd, who, like Furman’s current outfit, boasted one of the most prolific perimeter shooting team’s in all of college hoops. 

It was not quite the 106-57 beatdown Davidson issued in Huntington at the Cam Henderson Center, but it was certainly more than enough breathing room to clear the exits and aisles long before the throngs of Green and White rugby wearing fans had hoped. As great as Dononvan would go on to be as a head coach to be at Florida, his Herd were more like grasshoppers when facing McKillop’s ‘Cats.

Western Carolina’s 69-60 ultimate title game upset ended a 19-game winning steak, relegating the arguably the greatest team in SoCon history to not win the title begrudgingly to an NIT meeting with South Carolina’s sharp-shooting guard tandem of Larry Davis and B.J. McKie. The Wildcats weren’t all that interested anyway, losing by their largest margin all season—a 27-point thrashing in Columbia (L, 73-100).

The Wildcats had won a total of 16 Southern Conference games without defeat—most by double digits—with ironically only bottom-feeder Furman at the time being able to stay within 10 points of the Wildcats in the two meetings during the 1995-96 campaign. The first was a 102-97 setback for Joe Cantafio’s ‘Dins, as fans wildly rocked their yachts out on Lake Norman and a loud roar was heard throughout the outskirts of the Queen City…That was a long-winded joke, however, it was only the second league game for Davidson. 

It had disposed of a struggling ETSU basketball program by 32 in their league opener. It wouldn’t be until the final game in the Brown Box on Feb. 26, 1996, which would see Davidson see a team come within 10 points of them. This time the Wildcats needed OT to get past the 10-win ‘Dins in their final valiant performance in their rocking castle downtown, defeating the Paladins 88-79 before heading for Greensboro. 

It wasn’t all that easy for McKillop when College of Charleston entered the league in 1999, and then App State hired Buzz Peterson in 1996-97. The Mocs still had some guy named Mack McCarthy, who led his Scenic City to sights not seen and the Sweet Sixteen a year later. Davidson broke through to beat a gritty App State team in that same house of horrors in the Gate City in 1998. 

But it would be another hiccup in 2005 that would be the precursor to Davidson’s current success. Despite all the accomplishments that Davidson would attain in the SoCon and is now attaining in the A-10, it’s like the SoCon motto says “titles are forever” but then again, so are heartbreaks. No matter the success, that ’96 team and its unfinished business probably still stings for players, coaches and fans who remember it.

That being said, it should keep anyone humble. My writing doesn’t do the justice needed to describe how unlikely an upset that was. In terms of shock value, if we’re truly honest about it,. It’s probably second to only Michigan’s win over App State in football.  That’s how good Davidson really was. 

Davidson’s 1996 schedule

Back to present day events…Defense’ again traveled well 

The story above is for anyone thinking that Chattanooga or Furman or just going to run roughshod to Asheville and through Asheville next month, so I had to share. I am constantly also reminded of March’s possibilities due to that very upset by the Catamounts. 

Furman claimed its fourth-straight win by double digits, including its 15th-straight against Mercer, as the Paladins have now claimed wins in their last four outings by an outrageous average of 27 points-per-win, downing the Bears in emphatic fashion on the road, with an 80-50 win on Alumni Day at Hawkins Arena. 

With the win, Furman improved to 16-7 overall and 8-2 in Southern Conference action, while the Bears fell for a second-straight outing, falling to 12-10 overall and 5-4 in league action.

At 8-2, the Paladins remain a half-game back in the loss column to Chattanooga, following the Mocs’ 75-62, win over The Citadel in Charleston to remain a half-game in front in the standings in league play.

While Furman’s win was something that is becoming a trend, it’s going to be a different kind of recap from me. It’s hard to write a whole lot of stuff about a 30-point win.

Let’s be honest, Mercer didn’t play its best game, and head coach Greg Gary, who I think is one of the premier coaches in mid-major basketball, knows just that. Mercer has good players.

The Bears have good chemistry, but they also have had some tough luck injury-wise in now what is Gary’s third season at the helm in the ‘Mo Town’ of the South.  There’s no denying the fact that standout all-conference point guard Neftali Alvarez changes the dynamics of that team in terms of balance and leadership. 

However, while Mercer will have little time to lick its wounds or sulk in a 30-point home loss, Gary would probably agree that’s the best thing. The Bears turn around in less than 48 hours to face Wofford for the first time this season in a matchup of the SoCon’s last two No. 7 seeded runner’s up in the SoCon title game in Asheville. 

Three straight threes to open the game from Conley Garrison, Jalen Slawson and Marcus Foster set the tone for what kind of night it would be.

That energetic shooting bonanza to by the Paladins start the game would only be threatened mildly by the Bears the rest of the half, and for that matter the game, as it was Slawson’s dunk, in similar fashion to the one he had just a week earlier at Wofford that seemingly sent the type of message to the Bears in their den as the Terriers in had received in their pin a week earlier, which was that Furman would be the aggressor on both ends.

As Slawson goes, they seemingly go. And they seemingly go to keep Slawson’s emotions in check. He gets a tad bit excited on occasion.

That’s what leader’s do. But even Louisville tried to cut the head off that snake, and at the end of one of his three single-digit games this season, it still wasn’t enough for the power conference  foe. His tomahawk one-hander delivered with an emphatic efficiency befitting of the emotional Furman’s 6-7 emotional rudder, as the Paladins continue to navigate their way through a tough league. 

Over the past four games, Furman has been stellar defensively, seeing an uptick on that end of the floor through the first 10 Southern Conference games, ending the night by leading the league in virtually every defensive category when looking at conference only statistics.

That didn’t change Saturday night against the Bears, and in fact, it was a season-high in some categories, including total ball deflections, which equaled a season-high of 37 during his postgame wrap-up with play-by-play broadcaster Dan Scott on the Paladin postgame show. 

The defense led to some other massive differentials than the one seen on the scoreboard at Hawkins Arena at the game’s final buzzer. Like points off turnovers. A stat that Furman has been able to use to its advantage more often than not during the 2021-22 season. 

With Furman’s current play during this four-game stretch, one can’t help but get the feeling that this team is starting to emerge at just the right time, however, there is much basketball yet to be played.  However, even a casual basketball fan would only need a grade school understanding of mathematics to know that these type of wins and the margin by which they come, aren’t the norm in the rugged Southern Conference—a league known for its close basketball games over the past several seasons. 

In fact,  three of Furman’s eight conference wins have come by 30 or more points, with five of their eight league triumphs coming by 20 or more points, and a total of six have come by double digits. In fact, including early road setbacks in league play at first-place Chattanooga (L, 69-71) and VMI (L, 67-76), as well as close victories over UNC Greensboro (W, 58-54), East Tennessee State (76-67) account for league games—at least one way or the other—that have been decided by 10 points or less.

It was once again a Furman team, which unlike previous seasons which it had been heavily reliant on a solid core group of floor veterans while others mature and worked while they waited, the 2021-22, at least to this point, has offered an unexpected blend of youthful enthusiasm, mature leadership from a trio as good as any in college basketball, and a rare find on the transfer trail, which has led Furman just past the midway point of its 2021-22 Southern Conference slate.

The 16 wins already equals last season’s entire haul of victories in a COVID-19 shortened campaign, while the Paladins need just two more league wins to equal last season’s final total of 10-league wins. Giving credence to Furman’s kaleidoscope of talent, which on any different night, might offer a different, yet bright and colorful hue. That was the case once again on Saturday night in Macon—it came in the form of Hugh—ey…as in true freshman Tyrese Hughey, as well as sophomore Garrett Hien. 

Hughey posted a career-high 11 points, while Hien became the seventh different Paladin to boast a game-high scoring total this season, however, it wasn’t without a significant push from the aforementioned Hughey, as well as Slawson, who equaled Hughey’s point total, while also threatening a second triple-double in school history in the process.

Slawson got the school’s first-ever earlier this season in an 85-80 loss at Winthrop, as he posted 15 points, 12 assists and 10 boards.  The third Paladin to hit 11 was Marcus Foster, who hit three threes to get Furman’s first nine of the night in the nationally-televised contest on CBS Sports Network. 

The senior from Summerville continued to offer his argument for SoCon Player of the Year consideration alongside guy’s like VMI’s Jake Stephens, The Citadel’s Hayden Brown, and of course, Chattanooga’s phenomenal guard Malachi Smith.  He’s having a season that would probably make a guy like Matt Rafferty smile from ear-to-ear, as he has shown a Rafferty-like ability to fill out a score sheet in nearly every category, and perhaps even one further should be added.,..poster dunks.

That’s an element that even Rafferty, who is as good as any big in Furman’s recent basketball history, wasn’t able to say. I think I actually only remember Rafferty ever dunking a basketball twice in a game that I witnessed, but that wasn’t his style. He was crafty and tough. 

For Furman fans that go back a little ways, I’ll throw a name—see if it sticks. Slawson’s combination of athleticism, grace and skill reminds me of a Furman player that, like Slawson, probably never got the attention he deserved in his career, although for a different reason than Slawson.

For the French-born scoring talent Karim Souchu, he was a scoring and dunking machine, but in terms of overall team success, as talented as Furman was internationally, with point guard Brazilian-born Guillherme Da Luz also setting the school’s record for all-time assists, while Souchu was converting most of those Da Luz dimes into points to finish in the top five in school history in scoring. 

While Souchu was an outstanding talent on some mediocre basketball teams during his four years as a Paladin, Slawson has had to wait his turn. However, when Noah Gurley bolted for the portal and wound up in Tuscaloosa via a process much less dramatic than in Star Trek, Slawson saw his chance. He hasn’t relented. Swatting shots like flies on a Macon summer day—or gnats should you for some unknown reason go to far south and reach Statesboro—and he’s been he could have been Furman’s greatest NIL asset to date with as many proceeds that could come from his poster dunks of late. 

But Slawson is in a way completely focused on the task at hand. Much like the rest of the Paladins, at least at this point in the season. The senior forward finished the contest with his 11 points coming on a 2-of-4 effort from the field and a 1-for-3 effort from three-point land. He added a team-high tying seven rebounds, and led the Paladins in assists (8), steals (5), and blocks (1), rounding it all off with a 6-for-6 effort at the stripe.

Though Hien had 18 points and eight boards at Louisville, it could be argued his effort against the Bears was his best of the season. Like Slawson, Hien functioned at a high efficiency on both ends of the floor the entire night. Hien finished the night connecting on 5-of-10 his shooting attempts. He also added three boards and a pair of assists. 

Hughey’s career-best 11 came on 3-of-5 shooting from the field, which included a beautiful high-arching triple from the top of the key in the second half off of one of Furman’s 13 offensive rebounds. Hughey finished 1-for-3 from long range, while also adding seven boards to tie Slawson for team-high honors. 

Foster continued to show his improvements as a shooter by connecting on three three-pointers, going 3-for-6 from downtown, which equaled nine of his 11 points. He finished the night with a 4-for-10 overall effort from the field. Even more impressive than his improvement as an offensive player this season has been the lockdown defense Foster has provided on the other end, finishing with four steals, as he and Slawson combined for over half of Furman’s total of 16 thefts. 

Conley Garrison’s 10 points, which came on the heels of an impressive 22-point, eight rebound performance last time, rounded out the five Paladins in double figures. Garrison added two steals and two boards, and dished out one assist. Senior guards Mike Bothwell and Alex Hunter finished with eight and six points, respectively.

Hunter was creative as usual with three assists, and charted one of those steals. Bothwell had three boards, two steals and an assist. 

Mercer finished with just one player in double figures with point guard Kamar Robertson leading the Bears with 13, with James Glisson III’s seven points being the next highest total for the hometown Bears.. Furman held the Bears to their lowest point total of the season (50), holding the Bears to just 40.9% (18-of-44) from the field, and forced the Bears in to 22 turnovers, leading to a whopping 34-10 advantage in points from turnovers. 

Furman was again stellar in its rebounding, especially on the offensive boards, as well as its perimeter defense. The Paladins ripped down 13 offensive boards which led to a narrow 12-11 edge in second change points. Finally, the Paladins held Mercer to just 3-for-16 from three-point land, which equates to a 18.8% shooting clip from beyond the arc (18.8%) for the game. Furman finished the night with a 34-29 edge on the glass. Furman delivered

Felipe Haase, which was Mercer’s leading scorer coming into the matchup at 15.2 PPG, was held to six. 

Offensively, it was a decent overall performance, highlighted by a 20-assist night on 29 made baskets. The Paladins shot at a 47.5% (29-of-61) from the field, including a 36.4% (12-of-33) effort from three. 

I’ve drank that poisonous Purple kool-aid a time or three in the past, but when its been 42 years since the Paladins have gone with their best Lawrence Welk or Michael Jackson dance impersonation, you understand why that can be akin to Nick Saban’s ‘rat poison.’

I think the Paladins must be aware of that, or if they aren’t, teams like Chattanooga, East Tennessee State, Wofford, VMI and UNCG have a way of keeping you in the moment rather than drifting off into March daydreams. The good book tells us as much…That thing about pride and a fall. 

Staying the course has never been easy for Furman basketball. It’s 42-year drought  from March Madness is one of the longest streaks in NCAA basketball. So, while there’s moments to enjoy from all SoCon basketball, as a journalist, I have seen Furman win…I get what that’s like…

Only a few of us have seen it take place when it was all to play for. I was negative 57 days the last time it happened. In fact, among its SoCon brethren, only VMI, which has been in 45 years, and The Citadel, which has been never in however long the Bulldogs have bounced that orange sphere in the Port City. 

Up Next:

Furman hosts The Citadel Wednesday night with tip-off set for 7 p.m. at Timmons Arena.

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