Landlocked Pirates render endangered species playoff extinct in wild finish

Quay Holmes came up huge in ETSU’s second-round FCS playoff win over Kennesaw State/photo courtesy of ETSU athletics

It’s truly been a great a weekend so far for the Southern Conference, and Furman’s miracle at Timmons turned out to be an appetizer for what was to come for the league on Saturday, as No. 7 seed East Tennessee State hosted Kennesaw State in FCS second round playoff action at William B. Greene Jr. Stadium.

The Bucs hadn’t  played at home in the FCS Playoffs since 1996, and they made the most of that opportunity.  The Owls had a seemingly safe lead, however, out of their sanctuary led to many unknowns on a cool early December afternoon, with the sun setting behind the mountains.  Still, Owls are supposed to be nocturnal, right? No one told Bucky these things. 

Coming into Saturday’s contest, ETSU had been in seven games decided by a touchdown or less this season, winning six of those games, with the only setback in that span being a 21-16 setback at Chattanooga in the “Rail Rivalry.” 

On Saturday afternoon in Johnson City, the Bucs were involved in an eighth game that came down to the wire, and in the short history of the stadium, there has been some truly remarkable comeback wins. 

There was the 2018 win over Furman in what was now fourth-year head coach Randy Sanders’ first season. The Bucs posted what was a remarkable 29-27 win over the Paladins, engineered by Austin Herink, who came off the bench to lead ETSU to its biggest come-from-behind win in school history. The Bucs would go on to tie both Furman and Wofford for the SoCon title. 

As the only representative in the FCS playoffs, the game against a Kennesaw State program is one the SoCon needed to re-establish some respect. After all, the league hadn’t won an FCS playoff game since 2018, when Wofford knocked off Elon only to lose to those same Owls.

For much of the week, KSU fans touted their tradition,  their success as a start-up program, and beat their proverbial chests over how dominant they had been in the Big South. None of that was false, but maybe what should have been left unsaid is that a team that won 10 of its 11 game, including one over a power five foe, shouldn’t have been a top eight seed. After the Bucs, had done everything in front of them except beat a really good Chattanooga team on the road. 

It looked in fact like the Owls, who also posted wins over Wofford in 2018 and in the opening round in 2019, were going to turn the key again against a different SoCon foe, leading the contest 31-17 with 5:02 remaining following a Nathan Robertson 45-yard field goal.

The landlocked pirates needed to do everything right from that point forward. They did, conjuring some of that mountain magic that has now become almost thematic of the Sanders era as head coach.

In fact, in 27 of the 41 games that Sanders has coached in his time at ETSU, they have been decided by one score or less coming into Saturday’s playoff clash. On Saturday, they played in their 28th, improving to 19-9 in those games and remained perfect, 8-0 in the friendly confines this season. 

So when Robertson’s field goal split the uprights, it probably seemed business as usual for the Owls, and why wouldn’t it be, they had won 10-straight after a season-opening, 45-17, loss to Georgia Tech.

But ETSU never folded, and never got rattled after blowing a 17-7 third quarter lead, as the Owls scored 24 unanswered points following a Quay Holmes 31-yard scoring run with 11:45 remaining in the third quarter. 

The Owls seeming turned the game around first, by getting a 22-yard touchdown pass from Jonathan Murphy-to-Kyle Glover over the middle to make it a 17-14 deficit with 8:19 remaining in the third quarter.

Late in the third quarter, The Owls took their first lead of the afternoon when Murphy concluded a 13-play, 55-yard drive with a 1-yard scoring plunge from Murphy to make it a 21-17 game with just a little over a minute left in the third quarter. When Murphy scored again on a 9-yard run, and then Robertson connected on a 45-yard field goal with just over five minutes left, the Owls assumed what was seemingly a safe, 31-17, lead.

Cue the drama and Tyler Riddell. He needed 13 plays to complete the first portion of ETSU’s miraculous comeback, and it covered 78 yards, culminating with a 12-yard scoring strike from Riddell to wideout Will Huzzie to make it a 31-24 game with 1:28 left. 

Part two was no doubt the hardest part of this miracle—recover the on-sides kick. It had happened earlier in the season against Chattanooga, but the landlocked pirates couldn’t get what would have been the go-ahead score on that day, and that resulted in their lone loss of their season to date. 

Keltner delivered perfection, and the ball would be recovered by backup tight end Tim Stayskal, giving ETSU life again. Riddell and the offense took over with 1:26 remaining at the Kennesaw State 48. The Bucs got completions of 24 and 15 yards from Riddell-to-Nate Adkins to get the football all the way to the Owls 9-yard line just inside a minute.

After a third completion to Jacob Saylors KSU 4, Riddell’s next completion would be to Holmes for a 4-yard score with 35 seconds remaining. 

Instead of bringing out Keltner for the potential game-tying PAT, ETSU head coach Randy Sanders and the Bucs opted to go for the win. Riddell received excellent protection from the offensive line, which gave him enough time for Adkins to break open over the middle and Riddell delivered the perfect ball to his senior tight end to put the landlocked Pirates ahead 32-31.

The Bucs defense came up with the final stop to produce an improbable verdict, sending the Bucs fanbase into a frenzy as time wound down. 

Holmes accounted for 182 all-purpose yards, finishing with 87 yards on the ground and 95 yards on the ground with three combined touchdowns. 

Riddell delivered time and time again in the clutch on Saturday, as he connected on 22-of-35 passes for 238 yards, with three touchdowns and an INT. Murphy countered by connecting on 6-of-14 passes for 125 yards and a pair of scores, while rushing 28 times for 164 yards and two more scores. 

The Owls finished the day with a substantial advantage in total offense, out-gaining the Bucs 457-308, including a 287-70 edge in rushing yards.

With the win, ETSU improved to 11-1, setting a new program record for wins in a season in the process. The Owls see their season end with an 11-2 overall record. 

The landlocked pirates will go on another playoff treasure hunt next  weekend, when the Bucs take their land-motorized ship over glacial land into the open range of North Dakota, as ETSU will park its ship outside the FargoDome to take on North Dakota State with kickoff time and date still to be announced.

Furman wins wild OT game vs CofC

Furman guard Mike Bothwell/photo courtesy of Furman athletics

Furman tops CofC in another wild overtime finish

We’re exactly eight games into the 2021-22 basketball season, and half of them have gone to overtime, but the only real change in Friday night’s clash with in-state rival College of Charleston is that this time, the overtime game came on Furman’s home floor at Timmons Arena, and what transpired over 40 minutes of basketball is one to the best games to have ever taken place in terms of drama inside a facility that is now in its 23rd overall season of use. 

Without Furman senior guard Mike Bothwell this week, it’s easy to make the assumption the Paladins would be sitting at 4-4 through the first eight games, with some questions to be answered as the 2021-22 season moved forward. 

That’s only partly true. It’s true Bothwell had a lot to do with allowing Furman to have those opportunities to win two games this week, but he’d be the first to tell you that those situations he was in were only a byproduct of the work his teammates were able to do to get him in that position. That’s also true. 

While some questions remain to be answered about this 2021-22 Furman basketball team, one that seemingly the Paladins have answered time and time again this season has been that they will finish strong, and Friday night’s 91-88 win was a testament to how Furman answered the bell time and time again early on this season.

The win saw Furman improve to 6-2 overall, while Charleston fell to 5-3 on the young season. 

The Paladins trailed by as many as 15 points in the second half, but used career-high performances from Jalen Slawson (33 pts, 13 rebs) and Alex Hunter (25 pts, 2 assists, 2 steals), and a clutch three-pointer from Mike Bothwell (19 pts, 2 blks, 2 steals) for his only points from the field of the second half helped send the game into overtime before the Paladins outscored the Cougars 13-10 in overtime to help the Paladins notch their sixth win of the season.

In addition to his career high points total, Slawson’s 13 rebounds for the game helped him notch his third double-double of the season. He finished the contest by connecting on 9-of-17 from the field and 13-for-18 from the free throw line. 

Slawson, who was SoCon’s leader in shot blocks leader coming into the contest, added two blocks, as well as dishing out three assists and added a steal. The Summerville, S.C. native also went 2-of-4 from three-point land in the win. 

Much like he had done the entire night, Slawson showed tremendous leadership in the second half and especially in overtime. After scoring 11 points in the opening 20 minutes, Slawson would score 22 points in the second half in overtime. He was responsible for seven of Furman’s 13 total points in the extra frame. 

Hunter’s career-high 25 points eclipsed his career-high 23 points established just last week at USC Upstate. The senior from Raleigh, N.C., completed the contest by connecting on 8-of-15 shots from the field, including 5-of-11 from three-point land. 

Hunter was a perfect 4-for-4 from the line, which included the final two points of the game to give the Paladins a three-point lead with 11 seconds remaining. 

In addition to his scoring efforts, Hunter had a pair of assists, but an uncharacteristic four turnovers. He also added a pair of steals and two boards. 

Bothwell finished his night with 19 points, hitting 5-of-11 shots from the field, including going 2-for-4 from three-point land. Bothwell also came up big from the charity stripe all night, going 7-for-9 for the game. 

All told, Furman’s senior trio finished the night posting 77 of the team’s 91 points, but perhaps the most important player in the Paladins’ win over College of Charleston was sophomore guard Joe Anderson, who changed the entire energy of the game.

Inserted into the lineup with 12:25 remaining and the Paladins trailing the contest by 15, at 61-46, things didn’t look good for the hometown team. Everything was going the way of the visitors from the Low Country. 

However, if Friday night’s contest taught us or reminded of us of anything, it reminded us never to underestimate the human heart and the element of being ready for the opportunity when it comes in anything in life. It’s often in these moments more than the sport you are watching…It’s often a moral to someone’s story.

That story on this night was Joe Anderson. He hadn’t entered a basketball game for the Paladins since the Louisville win back on Nov. 12. In other words, he hadn’t seen live action in a game in three weeks. He made the most of his time on the floor. He earned every second of it. A point not lost on Richey or his players in the postgame press conference. 

Just 20 seconds after he entered the lineup, Anderson knocked the ball away from Charleston’s Ben Burnham, and in that small moment, the game turned, as Furman turned that steal into a Garrett Hien layup. 

It was hard to notice if you weren’t there, but as the game wore on, Anderson’s presence on the floor became more and more palpable, and his teammates, often with smiles on their face, knew exactly what was taking place. 

Anderson would go on to see the court for exactly 17:17 minutes of court action, and finished with five steals. In the second half and overtime, the Paladins would force 15 Charleston turnovers, and was a big reason why Furman finished with a 26-15 advantage in points off turnovers.

Offensively, Anderson finished the night going 1-for-3 from the field and finished with two points. Anderson’s fourth steal of the night off a Charleston inbounds pass led to a pass to Bothwell, who finished off the game with a 25-foot, double-clutch three-pointer that banked in with 1.2 seconds left to tie the game, 78-78, which allowed Furman enough time to grab an improbable win. 

Charleston was led individually by Australian-born Reyne Smith, who had a near flawless night shooting the basketball, as the Cougar guard finished the night with 24 points on 6-of-9 shooting from three-point land and was a perfect 6-for-6 from the stripe. He also added two rebounds and assist.

Williams was joined in double figures for the Cougars by senior guard Dimtrius Underwood (15 pts, 9 rebs) and grad transfer John Meeks (14 pts). Fah’Mir Ali and Nick Farrar added 10 points apiece to round out the five in double figures for the Cougars.

Furman finished the night posting an advantages in points off turnovers (26-15) and total steals (14-8), while Charleston fashioned statistical wins in total rebounds (40-35), second-chance points (13-7), points in the paint (36-30), total assists (14-12), fast-break points (6-0), and bench scoring (25-5). 

For the game, Furman was able to connect 43.5% (27-of-62) from the field, including 34.5% (10-of-29) from three-point range. The Paladins finished the contest connecting on 69.2% (27-of-39).

The Cougars connected on 50.8% (32-of-63) from the field, including 41.7% from three (10-of-24). The Cougars were 82.4% (14-of-17) from the charity stripe.

How It Happened:

Mike Bothwell’s 25-foot, double-clutch three-pointer from the top of the key banked in with 1.2 seconds remaining, tying the game for the first time since the 10:55 mark of the opening half, and allowed Furman to force overtime with the game tied, 78-78.

Making Bothwell’s shot even more remarkable is the fact that the Paladins trailed by 15 points twice in the second half, with the second of those two 15-point deficits coming with just over 12 minutes remaining, as the Paladins trailed the contest, 61-46. 

Furman chipped away at the lead the rest of the way. The Paladins battled to cut the margin to eight with 6:37 remaining on a jumper in the paint from Jalen Slawson. From there, the Paladins would hold the deficit to 6-8 points over the next 5:10 on the game clock until cutting the deficit to five points (76-71) following a Bothwell block/steal, and Slawson’s 11th of 13 drawn fouls with 1:27 remaining.

Slawson went to the line for two shots following the infraction committed in the act of shooting by John Meeks, and connected on 1-of-2 shots from the stripe. The foul was Meeks’ fifth, as he was disqualified after scoring all 14 of his points in the opening half of play. 

After Underwood missed a three from the left elbow, Hunter grabbed the rebound with just under a minute remaining and the ball found its way to Slawson again, and again he was fouled with 45 seconds remaining. 

He again went 1-for-2 from the line cutting the Cougars’ lead to four (76-72), however, Slawson came up with his own rebound and the ball found its way to Joe Anderson, who missed a three-pointer, forcing Bothwell to give a foul, and Underwood went to the line and connected on both shots to take the CofC lead to six (78-72) with  24 seconds left. 

Hunter knocked down a three on the ensuing possession for the Paladins, and then Anderson would steal the inbounds pass, but this time Hunter’s three was no good to tie the game, however, on the rebound Underwood rebounded the basketball, but tumbled to the floor, which caused him to travel, giving the Paladins one final chance on an inbounds pass with 10 seconds remaining.

From there, Furman couldn’t initially find the right spacing for a good look at a three, and with the ball in his hands and time winding down, Anderson found Bothwell, who was defended well by two Charleston defenders about 25 feet from the bucket, he pivoted, pivoted again and then on his third pivot, launched a three that caromed in off the glass with 1.2 seconds remaining. The game was going to overtime, tied 78-78.

Charleston wouldn’t go away, however, scoring four of the first five points in overtime to take an 82-81 lead on a Nick Farrar jumper in the lane with 3:32 left. Slawson responded with a layup on the other end to help Furman re-take the lead, 83-82, with 3:19 remaining. An Underwood layup in transition allowed the Cougars to take an 84-83 lead with 2:14 remaining, however, it would mark the final lead CofC would hold in the game. 

A pair of Bothwell made foul shots were followed by a missed three-pointer from Farrar and rebounded by Conley Garrison. The ball found its way to Slawson in the lane again, and he spun one way, and then the other before converting the bucket in the lane to give the Paladins an 87-84 lead with 47 seconds left. 

Bothwell gave Furman a two possession lead 20 seconds later, as the Paladins increased their lead to 89-85  before Reyne Williams’ sixth three pointer of the night brought the Cougars to within one (89-88) with 14 seconds left. 

Hunter was then immediately fouled on the inbounds pass with 11 seconds left, Ali’s three from the corner as time expired was no good, as Furman held on for the miraculous win. 

In overtime, Furman came out victorious for the third time this season, connecting on all three shots from the field, and went 7-for-10 from the charity stripe in the extra session to polish off a remarkable 91-88 win. 

Game Highlights:

Postgame Press Conference:

Jalen Slawson/Mike Bothwell
Head coach Bob Richey

Furman set to host former SoCon rival CofC Friday night

Summerville, S.C. native Jalen Slawson vs. CofC last season/photo courtesy of CofC athletics

Game 8: Furman (5-2) vs. College of Charleston (5-2), 7 p.m.

The Venue: Timmons Arena (3,500)

The Series: Tied 42-42

The Coaches: Furman–Bob Richey (94-37/5th yr); Pat Kelsey (191-97/10th season)

Last Time They Met: Furman 81, College of Charleston 57 (Dec. 5, 2020)

Furman returns to Timmons to tangle with Charleston

Furman will welcome College of Charleston back to Greenville for the first time since the 2014-15 season, when the Paladins opened the season by getting blitzed the Cougars, dropping a 75-40 decision to the Cougars at Timmons Arena. 

The Paladins would avenge that substantial loss by delivering what was a substantial beat-down in the Holy City last December, as the Paladins posted an 82-57 win at TD Arena in Charleston.

The  meeting marks just another tough litmus test in the  non-conference for the Paladins at Timmons Arena, which is a place the Paladins have posted a 76-13 mark since the start of the 2015-16 season. 

Last time out at home, the Paladins were defeated 77-66 by Patriot League member Navy, who snapped the Paladins’ streak of 22-straight non-conference home wins, datint back to a 93-74 setback to Wintrhop on Nov. 29, 2017. 

It is somewhat interesting to note that the coach of that team was Pat Kelsey. Now at Charleston, he and the Cougars have a chance to hand the Paladins back-to-back home losses for the first time since losing home outings against Chattanooga and Mercer on Feb . 5 and 7, 2015, to both Chattanooga and Mercer. 

Perhaps no school in the state of South Carolina boasts the type of basketball tradition and big names than that of the College of Charleston. First-year head coach Pat Kelsey would likely be the first to tell you that, and he should know, having already come to the Port City from Rock Hill and being the head coach of Winthrop to assume the head coaching vacancy in the nation’s second oldest city back in April. 

With names like Bobby Cremins and John Kresse on a short list of its “who’s-who” names that are recognizable to the most casual of college basketball fans. Among the player greats to wear the CofC uniform include Andrew Goudelock, Anthony Johnson, Sedric Webber, and Grant Riller just to name a few.

Goudelock, who left the program as its all-time leading scorer with 2,571-career points, ranks third in league history in career points behind only Davidson’s Stephen Curry (2,635 pts) and Marshall’s Skip Henderson (2,574 pts). 

Simply put, the brand and the program has succeeded at every level and in every conference it has played in, including the SoCon. Ironically, as successful as the Cougars were as a SoCon member, they only ever made the Big Dance once in their 14-year membership, and that was their first year as a member of the league that saw the Cougars turn out one of the best teams in the cherished 101-year history of the league in 1998-99. 

That 1998-99 Cougars team went a remarkable 28-3 and were a perfect 16-0 in Southern Conference play, and if you include the SoCon Tournament, 19-0 against league competition. The Cougars would start the 1998-99 season in the pre-season AP Top 25, and that’s also where the Cougars would end the season, ranked No. 19 in the final AP Poll. 

The 2021-22 season and the start of the Pat Kelsey era has seen College of Charleston off to a solid 5-2 start, which includes  a pair of losses to power six programs, in Oklahoma State (L, 66-96) and North Carolina (L, 83-94), but since the loss to the Cowboys in Stillwater, the Cougars have won two-straight in impressive fashion.

Meanwhile, Furman had to go to its third overtime game in four road games this season to get its second-straight win and improve to 5-2, as the Paladins claimed a 74-70 win at Big South member High Point in double overtime at the Quebien Center this past Tuesday night. The win over the Panthers was preceded by an 87-77 win at USC Upstate Saturday evening at the G.B. Hodge Center. 

It’s safe to say the College of Charleston has owned Furman in the recent history of this rivalry, with the two meeting regularly as Southern Conference members from 1998-2013. Since moving officially to the Division I level in 1989-90, the Cougars hold a 31-5 record over Furman since joining the Division I ranks, which includes having won 13 of the past 15 meetings between the two programs. 

After getting blown out at Oklahoma State, the Cougars have won two-straight successfully, and both against two pretty solid teams, with victories at preseason SoCon favorite Chattanooga (W, 68-66) and against a solid Conference USA member, in Tulane (W, 81-77) back home at TD Arena Monday night.

All five of Charleston’s win on the young season have come against KenPom Top 200 ranked programs. 

This year’s Cougars club has a much different look to it than the one Furman trouced by 24 in Charleston last season, with several transfers having made an immediate impact for Kelsey’s Cougars. 

All told, the Cougars brought in a total of 10  newcomers to totally transform and basically turn over the entire roster. Part of Kelsey’s heavy influence has been bringing a good mixture of freshmen and transfers. 

One of those transfers that has come in and had an immediate impact for the Cougars has been  John Meeks (17.7 PPG, 5.1 RPG), who transferred in from Bucknell and has been a key performer for the Cougars from the outset this season. Beset by injuries last season with the Bison, the senior forward logged action in only six games. 

He was a key scoring cog for the Bison last season, and that has remained the same this season for the Cougars, as his  17.7 PPG leads the Cougars coming into the blockbuster clash on Friday night.  He is shooting a blistering 43.8% from three and 46.3% from the field.

Meeks will team down low in the paint with a pair of solid freshmen brought in by Kelsey, with both Ben Burnham (7.7 PPG, 2.3 RPG) and Babacar Faye (5.1 PPG,  3.3 RPG). Burnham and Faye are joined in the starting lineup by one other freshman, in Reyne Smith (14.4 PPG, 3.0 RPG), who is the second-leading scorer and has matriculated to Charleston from down under, as he is a native of Australia.

Like Meeks, Smith is outstanding perimeter shooter for the Cougars, and comes into Friday night’s matchup having posted a career-high of 22 points last time out against Tulane, as he connected on six of the team’s 12 triples in the contest. So far in his rookie season, he is knocking down 3.57 three-pointers per game, and that ranks 16th in all of NCAA Division I basketball. 

Through the first seven games this season, Smith is shooting the ball at an impressive 45.5% clip from the field, and is connecting on 47% of his shots overall from the field. 

Rounding out the expected starting five for the Cougars will be senior Dimitrius Underwood   (8.7 PPG, 6.1 RPG), who provides veteran leadership as a senior  to off-set the youth of Smith in the backcourt. It was Underwood who had the game-winning tip-in against Chattanooga, and he is one of the players that is looked at as a veteran leader for the Cougars. 

Underwood is an excellent defender, having recorded 16 steals over the past four games for the Cougars. In addition to his game-winning tip-in against the Mocs, Underwood also added 12 points and three steals in the Cougars’ best win of the season. 

Faye and Burnham are more the unsung heroes for the Cougars in the paint, and while they aren’t headline grabbers, the duo has been consistent in helping CofC be one of big reasons why the Cougars have been so dominant on the backboards to date, as CofC currently leads the CAA in rebounds-per-game, averaging 42.9 RPG. 

Junior guard Brenden Tucker (10.3 PPG, 2.2 RPG) has been the top player off the bench so far this season for the Cougars. He is averaging 16.7 PPG over the past three outings for CofC, and he’s been a long-range markseman off the bench for CofC this season, having knocked down 12-of-22 three-pointers for the year, which converts to 54.4% for the season so far. 

The Cougars are a +43 in the backboards through the first seven games of the season. The Cougars have grabbed 10 or more offensive rebounds in all seven games this season, which if there is one key to the game tonight, it will be on the boards. If the Paladins truly are as improved on the glass as the stats would imply, then this will be a stat that it should be able to limit this evening, which is holding the Cougars to less than 10 offensive boards for the game. 

Another key to Pat Kelsey’s team’s success over the years has been establishing pace, and being able to create a high number of possessions, which is  trying to get as close to 80 possessions per basketball game per outing as possible. With the Cougars forcing the issue, that has them coming to Greenville leading the nation in the adjusted metric of opponent possessions, as the opposition is averaging a total of 77.6 possessions per game.

The problem comes when you try and speed up teams that are already wired to play that style of basketball, which this Furman team appears to be, as opposed to last season’s squad, which preferred a fast pace, but a more measured one as well. 

However you look at this game, Furman is going to be tested in a different way once again tonight, and if the Paladins don’t make shots like they struggled to do against High Point this past Tuesday night, the result will not be the same as that one was in double-overtime on the road. After all, the Cougars showed us they could in fact seize the moment when another team is struggling offensively, and you have to look no further than the UTC game to see that. 

The Paladins have not won back-to-back meetings in the series against the Cougars since winning 114-67 in 1952-53 and then again in 1971-72 with a 94-73 win in Greenville.

Furman’s Projected Starting Five:

G-#10 Alex Hunter (5th yr Sr/16.6 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 4.3 APG)

G–#51 Conley Garrison (Gr transfer from Drury/10.4 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 3.0 APG)

G–#3 Mike Bothwell (Sr/17.0 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 3.0 APG)

G–#5 Marcus Foster (R-So/8.1 PPG, 6.1 RPG)

F/C–#20 Jalen Slawson (Sr./14.9 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 2.6 APG, 2.4 BPG)

Furman outlasts High Point in double OT thriller

Furman 74, High Point 70

John Michael-Wright shoots over Furman’s Mike Bothwell/photo courtesy of Tim Cowie and High Point athletics

It’s been hard to pinpoint a definitive difference in the fifth edition of Furman basketball under the direction of Bob Richey, however, an early clue to the grit and toughness of this edition of this particular Paladin team could be observed with one view of the stats sheet following Furman’s overtime win at Louisville. 

That one definitive statistical category most equate directly with toughness—rebounding. In that 80-72 triumph in overtime over the Cardinals, perhaps second only second in shock value to the final score to those that more than just casual fans is the fact that the Paladins outrebounded the bigger, and supposedly stronger ACC team, 43-41. 

Monday night’s double-overtime, 74-70, win at High Point saw the Paladins rip down a whopping 53 rebounds, which included 18 on the offensive end of the floor. 

To notch its fifth win in seven outings this season, Furman and head coach Bob Richey had to rely on strong defense down the stretch and clutch offensive shots in big moments from Mike Bothwell to overcome a pesky High Point squad at the state-of-the art  Quebein Center, which is in its second year of operation and is one of the best mid-major arenas in this part of the country.

The win, which came in Furman’s third overtime game of four road games this season, saw the Paladins improve to 5-2 overall and 2-1 in OT games. The loss dropped the Tubby Smith-led High Point Panthers to 3-4.

The Paladins were led for a second-straight game by Alex Hunter, who scored 18 points to lead five Paladins in double figures, including a pair of double-doubles from both Jalen Slawson (12 pts, 14 rebs) and Marcus Foster (15 pts, 14 rebs), accounting for 28 of the 53 boards in the contest. 

On a night when neither team would use this particular offensive display for any instructional coaching videos on execution, particularly shooting wise, the Paladins knocked down the big shots when needed. Furman connected on 38.0% (27-of-71) from the field, including just 25.9% (7-of-27) from the three-point line. 

Hunter would be the first to tell you it wasn’t his best shooting night, but like the theme of the night for Furman offensively, when the Paladins needed a bucket, it was usually Hunter or Bothwell that came through and delivered them. 

The graduate senior finished off an outstanding opening month of the season by having to find his shot  on a night when they weren’t falling more often than not, as he connected on just 6-of-18 shots from the field, including just 3-for-13 from three-point range. He also dished out a pair of assists and had one steal. 

Hunter went an uncharacteristic 3-of-6 from the line. However, through the first month of the season, it’d be hard to argue there’s been a better player or model of consistency in the SoCon, and he’s started the season by scoring in double figures in six of his first seven games out in a season he decided to return and take a chance on. It’s turning out splendidly thus far. Stay tuned. 

It was Foster’s second-straight start, and he followed suit with his second-straight double-double. While he matched his career-high in points on a 6-of-11 shooting performance from the field, his 14 boards were four more than his previous career-high of 10 last time out in the Hub City. Foster was just 3-for-7 from the line. 

Slawson, who went down with a quad injury in Saturday’s win at Upstate, returned maybe a little sooner than some may have expected, and added to his all-around strong effort by handing out four assists, blocking three shots and recording a pair of steals prior to fouling out in the first overtime. He connected on 3-of-8 shots from the field and finished 6-for-10 from the charity stripe.

Conley Garrison finished off another stellar performance to cap his opening month in a Paladin uniform as a graduate transfer, and was another major reason the Paladins would walk away from an opponent’s floor with a win that they had to fight like hell to get.

He’s done those little things in key moments. The three in the corner against Louisville early in the second half when the Paladins trailed by six (41-35), and the game teetering on the brink of swinging the way of a Louisville team that had won 59-straight non-conference November home games, was one of those moments.

That particular trifecta in game two established Furman’s presence and aggression for the remainder of the night. 

Though his 11 points and nine rebounds were just one off a double-double, it was perhaps his ability, along with Furman Associate Head Coach Jeremy Growe to play “get back coach” against a livid Richey for a foul whistled against Slawson extremely late in the game.

Had Growe and Garrison not come to the rescue, it likely would have cost Furman the game as a result of a technical foul, as the referee had whistle to mouth ready to take action. 

The dynamic duo of Growe and Garrison would make sure the fifth-year coach calmed down and returned to the moment. From that point forward, the Paladins seemed to find their fire they had been lacking most of the night prior to Richey’s unexpected emotional outburst.

Garrison finished the night connected on 4-of-7 shots from the field, including 3-for-6 from three-point land. He also blocked two shots, with one assist and one steal in the win. 

Throughout his career, Mike Bothwell has taken on the persona of making big shots in big moments, not all that much unlike assistant coach Daniel Fowler in that respect, who is not too far removed from some buzzer-beating moments that helped to define his career at Furman. While 

Bothwell finished the night just 5-for-20, including going 0-for-4 from three, the senior guard seemed unphased when the Paladins needed a layup to force overtime, and then another. He finished with 11 points. 

 He went 2-for-2 with time winding down and the game on the line. Not too much different than what Bothwell did on a spinning baby jumper against Trevor Stumpe and Wofford as a sophomore at the Well a couple of years ago, or earlier in the season, his three-point play the old-fashioned way to beat Texas San Antonio in a tournament at Elon. Four of Bothwell’s six rebounds in the contest were on the offensive glass. He also posted three assists. 

All told, the Paladins were able to own the glass by posting a 53-46 advantage on the backboards, which led to a narrow 11-9 advantage in second-chance points for the Paladins. 

Furman continues to be uncharacteristically erratic at times with the basketball, turning the ball over 14 times, which led directly to 16 Panther points off turnovers. The Paladins on the other hand, ended the night forcing 12 High Point miscues, which it converted into seven points.

The Paladins were good defensively all night, holding the Panthers to just 36.8% (25-of-68) from the field, including just 6-of-24 (25.0%) from the field. Furman held a 40-28 advantage in points in the paint and an 8-6 edge in fast-break points, The Panthers finished with a narrow 9-7 edge on the glass. Both teams dished out 11 assists.

Big South Player of the Year candidate John-Michael Wright posted a game-high 26 points on 9-of-29 shooting from the field, including 3-for-12 from three-point land. He also added six boards and dished out five assists. He was one of three Panthers in double figures, with Zach Austin adding 14 points, while Emmanue Izunabor added 11 points before fouling out late in the second half.  

How It Happened:

Following an Emmanuel Izunabor made charity shot with 3:11 remaining, High Point’s night looked to be heading towards an epic crescendo, and perhaps a pinnacle to date for the palatial Quebein Center still in its infancy as a mid-major facility, but as he did early in the second half at Louisville, Conley Garrison had his batman moment, with timing impeccable. He knocked down a three when Furman had to have it, which not only cut the Panthers lead to a deuce, but also prevented the opportunity for High Point to stretch its lead to more than two possessions. 

Despite forcing a High Point miss on the ensuing possession, a rebound and subsequent turnover by Garrison gave the Panthers a chance to extend their lead back to two possessions, which they took advantage of on a hammer dunk from Izunabor with just under two minutes remaining, giving High Point the 57-53 lead.

Slawson was fouled on the other end with 1:36 left. The senior from Summerville, S.C., connected on a pair of charity shots to make it a 57-54 contest. The Paladins and Panthers would trade free throws on a Jaden House free throw with just 28 seconds remaining, pushing High Point’s lead back to three, at 58-55. 

Furman held the ball as long as possible looking for a good look at a three, however, with time becoming precious, points also became imperative, and Hunter seized upon the moment to slice down the lane and lay the ball off the glass to get the Paladins within a single point, at 58-57, with only eight seconds remaining. 

Following a Furman timeout, the Paladins were forced to foul 77% foul shooter John-Michael Wright. He calmly stroked home the first foul shot, giving the Panthers the 59-57 lead, Richey called timeout to set up the scenarios for a two, or three-point shot. Michael-Wright missed his second offering, and the ball caromed into the hands of Foster, who found Bothwell in the middle of the floor. He drove directly to the hoop and layed the ball in over the block attempt from John-Michael Wright, with half-a-second left, tying the game, 59-59. It was enough to force Furman’s third overtime in its first four road games. 

After Jalen Slawson’s layup cutting down the lane gave Furman the early 61-59 lead to get overtime off to a positive start, the Paladins would see the Panthers score six-straight, with the final four coming from John-Michael Wright on a pair of foul shots and a jumper in the lane to give High Point a 65-61 lead with 1:42 remaining, and putting them on the brink of one of the biggest wins in recent memory for a program Tubby Smith is quickly rebuilding in the Gate City.

However, the visitors in Purple wouldn’t go away. Marcus Foster finished strong on a drive in the lane before Garrison collected an important miss from John-Michael Wright with 48 seconds remaining and the Paladins trailing by a couple. After a Paladin turnover and another Garrison rebound, the Paladins found themselves in the same situation with less time on the clock—this time with only 30 seconds remaining. 

Two missed Foster free throws following a foul by Bryant Randleman saw Alex Holt come down with the loose basketball for the Panthers with 16 seconds left, forcing Garrett Hien to commit the foul. Holt missed both free throws to leave the door open for Furman. Following the second miss by Holt, Garrison grabbed his third-consecutive board, and the ball eventually found its way to Bothwell in the right corner, where he drove the ball hard to the hole and layed it in with 4.4 seconds remaining to tie the game, 65-65.

Randleman missed a three from the left wing at the buzzer to force a second extra session. The Paladins finally assumed complete control in overtime, scoring the first six points on field goals from Hunter, Bothwell and Hien, assuming a 71-65 lead and held the Panthers without a field goal for the first 4:39 of the second extra session. 

High Point’s lone points of the second overtime came on a layup and a triple  by John Michael-Wright, with the latter trimming Furman’s lead to three points, at 73-70, with nine seconds remaining. Hunter was immediately fouled and he sealed the win with a free throw with seven seconds left, and the Paladins would gut out a 74-70 win on the road in the triad of the old North State. 

All told, the game featured 14 lead changes and nine ties. Neither team led the game by more than eight points, with Furman scoring the first eight points of the night before heading to the halftime locker room with a narrow 26-25 lead.

Up Next:

Furman will host perennial CAA power College of Charleston on Friday night at Timmons Arena, with tip-off slated for 7 p.m., as the Paladins look to get back on the winning track at one of the most formidable homecourt venues in mid-major basketball. 

Furman gets back on the winning track at USC Upstate

Alex Hunter scored a career-high 24 points in Furman’s 87-77 win at Upstate

Furman 87, Upstate 77

On a day when Marcus Foster drew his first start of the 2021-22 season, Furman would respond both offensively and defensively to get an 87-77 win over USC Upstate in front of a pro-Furman crowd on-hand at the G.B. Hodge Center.

The win saw the Paladins improve to 4-2 overall this season, while Upstate fell to 2-4. Furman improved to 5-0 all-time against the Spartans, and 3-0 all-time at the G.B. Hodge Center. 

Furman got career high scoring efforts from Alex Hunter (24 pts) and the aforementioned Foster (15), who also added a career-high for rebounds (10), completing a double-double effort. 

Hunter finished the contest making 9-of-13 shots from the field, which included a 6-for-9 from three-point range, as the senior from Raleigh, N.C., scored all but four of his points in the opening half, connecting all six of his triples in the opening half. 

Hunter was responsible for nearly half the Paladins three-point field goals in the contest, connecting on six of Furman’s total 13 triples. For the game, the Paladins shot 46.4% (13-of-28) from three-point land. The Paladins also shot the ball at a 55.0% clip (33-of-60) for the game, while the Spartans shot 50.8% (31-of-61) from the field, while Upstate connected on 50% (9-of-18) from beyond the arc.

The game with a bit of a scare for Furman, however, which saw its star big man go down in the second half, as Jalen Slawson, who finished with 18 points, went down with what appeared to be a knee injury. It was ruled to have in fact been nothing serious involving the knee following the game, however, he will be day-to-day. 

Slawson finished the contest by connecting on 6-of-8 from the field and 2-for-3 from three-point range, with 16 of those points coming in the opening half of play. He also added three steals and dished out three assists, while pulling down four rebounds in the win. 

The only other Paladin finishing in double figures in the contest was Mike Bothwell, who rebounded from a seven-point effort against Navy the last time out to post 11 points on 4-of-10 shooting from the field, including 1-of-4 from three-point land. Garrett Hien dished out a career-high five assists for the Paladins. 

The Paladins held a 31-27 advantage on the glass, while holding advantages in points in the paint (18-12), fast-break points (13-11), and total assists (18-16). Furman and Upstate tied, 40-40, on points in the paint, while the Spartans had a significant advantage in points in the paint (40-12). Furman caused Upstate to turn the ball over 20 times, while committing 14 turnovers in the win. 

The Spartans had four players finish in double figures, led by Nick Alves’ 16 points, while freshman guard Jordan Gainey added 13. Dalvin White and Bryson Mozone rounded out the double-figure scorers for the Spartans, with 11 points apiece. 

How it Happened:

Furman would lead by as 25 points a little over midway through the second half, and would end up winning by double digits after Upstate scored the final 10 points of the contest, making the score seem a little closer and more competitive than it actually was for much of the evening. 

Furman appeared to be emotionally invested in the well-being of its teammate, Slawson, who went down with an injury a little over midway through the second half, and was in obvious pain. According to head coach Bob Richey in the postgame interview, it also affected the Paladins’ defensive rotation in certain situations. 

While Slawson’s injury turned out to be only minor in nature, his leadership and affect on this edition of the Furman Paladin basketball team was evident on the faces of each of his teammates.

When Slawson was forced to the sidelines, both Garrett Hien and Alex Williams stepped up and gave the Paladins some important minutes in the paint. Hien finished the contest with a career-high five assists, while Williams connected on both of his three-points shots to finish with six points. 

Unlike the previous two games, Furman came out and turned up the heat on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor from the outset of the contest, which led to an early 20-4 lead following a three-pointer off an early Upstate turnover, forcing a Spartans timeout with 14:17 remaining in the frame.  

From that point forward, the Paladins would never look back en route to taking a 20-point lead into the halftime locker room following a jumper in the paint by Slawson with eight seconds remaining. 

Following a triple from the corner by Quentin Hodge, the Spartans had cut the Furman lead to just 13 points (45-32) with 2:15 remaining in the opening half. However, the Paladins would score the final seven points of the half on a jumper and a three-pointer from Hunter, and the aforementioned jumper in the lane by Slawson. 

While the Paladins scored the final three buckets of the half, it was also three-straight stops on the defensive end, which helped Furman head into the locker room with all the momentum, which was highlighted by a Foster block. 

The second half would see more of the Paladins’ dominance in the early going. The lead hovered around 15-21 points in the opening five minutes of the half, with the Spartans not able to make any discernible difference in the margin.

Layups by Foster and Conley Garrison got the Paladin lead to 21 points inside the opening five minutes of the frame, with Foster’s layup sending the Paladins to the first media timeout of the second half with a 65-44 lead. 

Just 45 seconds later, a Foster three would increase the Furman lead to 24 points, at 68-44, with 15:25 remaining. Buckets by Alves and White would eventually get the Spartans back to within 20 with exactly 14 minutes to play. 

Leading 76-53 with just over nine-and-a-half minutes remaining, Slawson took a spill driving hard down the paint before Hodge rotated over late to try and take a charge late before Slawson could adjust and the two collided, with the senior from Summerville, S.C., taking the worst of the injury, although more for the way he landed after the contact rather than the contact itself. 

After being checked out by the trainers, Slawson was helped to the sidelines in noticeable pain. Garrett Hien was subbed in to take the two foul shots. He connected on both, giving the Paladins their largest lead of the night, at 78-53, with 9:36 remaining.

Five-and-a-half minutes later, a Bothwell jumper gave the Paladins their final 20 point lead of the game, at 87-67, as Furman did not score for the final 4:08 of the contest, and Upstate finished the game on a 10-0 run to set the final margin. 

Next Time Out:

Furman will head to High Point to take on the Tubby Smith-led Panthers on Tuesday night. The late November meeting between the Paladins and Panthers will mark just the third all-time meeting between the two, with Furman leading the all-time series, 2-0.

Furman claimed a 58-45 win over the Panthers back during the 2004-05 season, with that win coming at High Point.

The Paladins also claimed a 98-87 win over the Panthers at Timmons Arena during the 2003-04 season. It will be Furman’s first trip to the Quebein Center for the first time since the arena opened back during the 2018-19 season, and the venue is one of the nicer home venues in the Big South Conference. 

Postgame Audio:

Bob Richey following Upstate win
Marcus Foster following the Upstate win

SoCon Football 2021: superlatives, all-conference teams and other notes

ETSU RB Quay Holmes (photo courtesy of ETSU athletics)

The 2021 football season concluded last Saturday with East Tennessee State claiming the regular-season league crown with a 38-35 win over Mercer in what was the de facto Southern Conference title game, with the Bucs being the only team from the Southern Conference chosen to play into the FCS Playoffs. 

In the spring, VMI was the lone representative from the Southern Conference to participate in the FCS playoffs, as the Keydets dropped a 31-24 decision in the opening round of the postseason.

The Bucs will enter the FCS playoffs as the No. 7 overall seed, with a bye in the opening round and will face the winner of Big South champion Kennesaw State (10-1) and Pioneer Football League champion Davidson (8-2), which will take place this Saturday in Kennesaw. 

Like Mercer, Kennesaw State was a former rival during the Bucs’ short time as a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference, and most of the rivalry will be remembered for the time the two spent facing each other on the basketball hardwood. However, the rivalry was rekindled in 2015 with both starting football programs, with Kennesaw State having the gridiron sport for the first time in its history.

However, the Owls and Bucs have faced each other twice on the college football gridiron, which came in both the 2015 and ’16 campaigns, respectively. 

In fact, the first matchup between the Bucs and Owls would be the inaugural football game for ETSU after returning to the gridiron for the first time in 12 years, with the Owls posting a resounding 56-16 win over the Bucs.

A year later, Kennesaw State came to Johnson City where the Paladins were able to post what was a 20-17 overtime win over the Owls. KSU is unbeaten against FCS competition (9-0) against FCS competition this season, with the lone loss of the season coming against FBS and ACC member Georgia Tech (L, 17-45) in the season opener. 

ETSU’s 2016 win sparked a bit of a rivalry between the two that remains. ETSU was given little credit for that win by the opposition, fueling heated message board discussions and plenty of social media banter.

The Bucs and Wildcats have also only faced off against each other twice in the history of the two programs, ETSU having won both previous meetings. Like the rivalry with the Owls, the Bucs rivalry with the Wildcats is known mostly for the times the two met each other in heated hardwood matchups.  The only two meetings against ETSU on the football gridiron came in 1986 and ’88, respectively. 

The Bucs claimed a 41-16 win over the Wildcats on Sept. 20, 1986, while also posting a 31-28 win over the Wildcats on Nov. 5, 1988. A 45-14 win over Drake this past Saturday allowed the Wildcats to claim a second-straight PFL title and subsequently be making the program’s second all-time trip the FCS postseason, with the only other trip coming this past spring. 

The Wildcats finished with an 8-2 overall record and as champions as the non-scholarship football conference. The Wildcats were participants in the playoffs for the first time ever this past spring, losing an opening round matchup to Jacksonville State.

ETSU got a 132-yard and one-touchdown rushing effort from Quay Holmes in Saturday’s title-clinching win over Mercer (W, 38-35), which was good enough to help him become the school’s all-time leading rusher (4,142 yds), surpassing former Bucs great Brandon Walker (1996-99).

SoCon in the FCS Playoffs: 

The Southern Conference has been one of the traditional powers of the FCS postseason, and the SoCon has posted a 109-78 all-time record in the FCS postseason, however, the SoCon has not tasted victory in the postseason since 2018, when Wofford downed Elon 19-7 in an opening-round contest at Gibbs Stadium in Spartanburg.

Since that time, the SoCon has lost four-straight FCS postseason games, including last spring’s seven-point loss by VMI at James Madison (L, 24-31). Despite some lean years as of late, the league boasts a .593 winning percentage in the postseason, which is tops among all FCS leagues. 

SoCon gets only one bid

What had once been rare has now become something of a regularity now. For the second-straight season, the SoCon has just one participant in the FCS postseason, with VMI having been the SoCon’s lone representative in the spring, while ETSU, who enters the postseason as the No. 7 seed, is the lone seed in the fall.

Two conferences make up nearly half the FCS playoff bid, with the Missouri Valley Football Conference having received six invites to the FCS playoffs, which includes a 6-5 Northern Iowa team, while the Big Sky received five bids to the FCS postseason.

Both league’s tout the strength of their non-conference schedules, however, that includes wins over the likes of transitional Division I programs like St. Thomas (MN) and Dixie State (UT), which count now as Division I wins over essentially Division II programs.

Mercer scheduled only 10 games, having played a full eight-game slate in the spring. In the fall, the Bears did have 11 games originally scheduled, but bought out the game with Charleston Southern for health and safety concerns due to the pandemic and amount games played within a calendar year.

The Bears played and won a non Division I game with a 69-0 victory over NAIA Point University, and then headed to Alabama to face off against the No. 1 Crimson Tide, losing that contest  48-14. 

The Bears would begin conference play following an off-week, proceeding to get wins at Furman (W, 24-3), vs. Samford (W, 45-42), and at Western Carolina (W, 34-24) before dropping its first of two Southern Conference games, with a bad home loss to VMI (L, 7-45).

In fact, while the Bears were much improved overall and certainly probably deserved inclusion as one of the best 24 teams in the country and playing the FCS playoffs, the Bears struggled most against VMI during the past year. Going back to the spring, which saw the Bears drop a 41-14 contest up in Lexington last spring, the Bears have been outscored 86-21. 

After the loss to VMI, the Bears would proceed to reel off wins over Wofford (W, 45-14), at The Citadel (W, 34-7), and vs. Chattanooga (W, 10-6) to head into last Saturday’s game at East Tennessee State playing for all the marbles under second-year head coach Drew Cronic.

The Bears lost a memorable 38-35 contest. The Bears were in search of their first-ever Southern Conference regular-season title and subsequent FCS playoff bid. 

It probably also did not help the Bears that both Chattanooga and VMI, which accounted for Mercer’s two best wins, both suffered losses in the final week of the regular-season.

The Mocs lost at home to The Citadel (L, 21-24), while the Keydets also loss their final home game of the regular-season, with a 52-24 setback to Western Carolina. If VMI or Chattanooga or both had won, it might have been enough to push the Bears and Keydets or Mocs into the postseason, however, that was not the case and Mercer was left as the last team left out of the FCS postseason. 

SoCon John’s 2021 SoCon Specialty Awards and All-Conference Teams:

Offensive Player of the Year: RB—Quay Holmes (East Tennessee State)

Defensive Player of the Year: DL—Devonsha Maxwell (Chattanooga)

Jacobs Blocking Award: RG—Tre’Mond Shorts (ETSU)

Freshman of the Year: DB—Andreas Keaton (Western Carolina)

Coach of the Year: Kerwin Bell (Western Carolina)

First Team Offense:

QB—Liam Welch (Samford)

RB—Quay Holmes (East Tennessee State)

RB—Ailym Ford (Chattanooga)

—or—

RB—Jacob Saylors (East Tennessee State)

OL—Tre’Mond Shorts (East Tennessee State)

OL—Joe Schreiber (East Tennessee State)

OL—Anderson Tomlin (Furman)

OL—Cole Strange (Chattanooga)

OL—Nick Hartnett (VMI)

TE—Ryan Miller (Furman)

WR—Raphael Williams (Western Carolina)

WR—Montrell Washington (Samford)

First Team Defense:

DL—Devonsha Maxwell (Chattanooga)

DL—Parker Stokes (Furman)

DL—Ben Brewton (Chattanooga)

DL—Solomon Zubairu (Mercer)

LB—Stone Snyder (VMI)

LB—Donovan Manuel (ETSU)

LB—Nathan East (Samford)

DB—Brandon Dowdell (Chattanooga)

DB—Tyree Robinson (ETSU)

DB—Travis Blackshear (Furman)

DB—Jerrell Lawson (Chattanooga)

First Team Specialists:

PK—Tyler Keltner (ETSU)

P—Jack Culbreath (VMI)

RS—Montrell Washington (Samford)

Second Team Offense:

QB—Rogan Wells (Western Carolina)

—or—

QB—Tyler Riddell (ETSU)

RB—Fred Davis (Mercer)

RB—Irvin Mulligan (Wofford)

OL—Steve Strand (VMI)

OL—Tyler Smith (Western Carolina)

OL—Haden Haas (The Citadel)

OL—Harrison Moon (Chattanooga)

OL—McClendon Curtis (Chattanooga)

TE—Michael Vice (Samford)

WR—Will Huzzie (ETSU)

WR—Michael Jackson (VMI)

Second Team Specialists:

PK—Timmy Bleekrode (Furman)

P—Matt Campbell (The Citadel)

RS—Calvin Jones (Western Carolina)

Second Team Defense:

DL—Joseph Mera (Samford)

DL—Nelson Jordan (Samford)

DL—Warren Dabney (VMI)

DL—Chris Hill (Mercer)

LB—Kareem Taylor (Western Carolina)

LB—Lance Wise (Mercer)

LB—Jalen Porter (ETSU)

DB—Destin Mack (The Citadel)

DB—Andreas Keaton (Western Carolina)

DB—Dominick Poole (The Citadel)

DB—Alijah Huzzie (ETSU)

Navy hands Furman first home loss of the season

GREENVILLE, S.C.–Furman saw its streak of 22-straight non-conference at Timmons Arean come to an end, as Navy posted a 77-66 win over the Paladins Sunday afternoon at Timmons Arena.

The Midshipmen, who opened the season with a win at No. 25 Virginia (W, 66-58) before losses at Virginia Tech (L, 57-77) and Louisville (L, 60-77) coming into this weekend, have won back-to-back games on Furman’s home floor, taking a 77-66 win in Timmons Arena.

With the win, the Midshipmen improved to 3-2 overall, while the Paladins dropped 3-2. The Midshipmen were led by John Carter, Jr., who posted a game-high 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the field, which included going 3-of-5 from three-point range. Carter Jr. connected on three of the four three-pointers in the contest for the Midshipmen.  He also knocked down all four of his foul shot attempts to complete his 21-point effort.

Carter Jr. was joined in double figures by veteran guard Greg Summers, who added 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the field and 1-for-2 from the line, while Richard Njoku was a pefect 7-for-7 from the field for the afternoon to complete the contest to complete his 14-point effort. 

Furman was paced by a season-high 20-point effort from Jalen Slawson, marking his fourth double-figure effort out of five games to start the 2021-22 season. Slawson finished the afternoon connecting on 8-of-13 shots from the field, including going 1-for-5 from the foul line. He also added seven rebounds,  dished out five helpers, blocked four shots and recorded to steals to highlight another complete effort. 

Slawson was one of three Paladins to finish in double figures, as Alex Hunter added 11 points, posting nine of those in the second half, while freshman forward Alex Williams finished with his first-ever double-digit scoring effort for the Paladins, as he finished with 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting from the field, including going 1-of-3 from long range and 1-for-2 at the line. Hunter also led the Paladins with seven assists in the setback. 

Unlike Friday night’s win over Radford, Furman struggled to overcome some shooting struggles in the early going, and never seemed to find its offensive rhythm in the opening half, as the Midshipmen capitalized on a 58.6% shooting clip (17-of-29) to take a 38-31 lead into the halftime locker room.

Though the Paladins would find a little more offensive rhythm in the second half, the defense was lacking. There were chances to trim the lead. However, time and time again the Midshipmen drove the ball and got the ball exceedingly deep in the paint, and that simplification of the game led to easy shots, which eventually led to an even better shooting percentage in the second half, as the Midshipmen connected on a blistering 63.0% (17-of-27) clip in the second half.

Furman would get as close as two points in the second half, as the Paladins got it to a 42-40 game with following a Slawson three-point play the old-fashioned way with 13:28 remaining. 

However, the Midshipmen would answer with four-straight points to go back ahead by six on a pair of layups by Tyler Nelson, which accouted for four of his eight points, with the second of those two-pointers putting Navy ahead 46-40 with 12:43 to play.

A Garrett Hien triple with 11:19 remaining got the Paladins to within four, at 49-45,. however, the Midshipmen would push the back to 10 points on a pair of buckets from Summers and one from Daniel Deaver, as Navy assumed a 55-45 lead with 9:19 remaining. A Conley Garrison three-pointer would get the Paladins back to within seven points with eight minutes to play. 

Furman would get back to within four following a turnover from Navy, as Hunter connected on a three-pointer, making it a 55-51 Paladin deficit with 7:32 left. Once again, the Midshipmen provided an answer to the situation, as Sean Yoder knocked down a free throw line jumper, and followed by a 1-of-2 effort from Mike Bothwell at the free throw line, Navy went back up by seven on a Summers layup with 6:36 left, making it a 59-52 game. 

The Paladins would get the Navy lead down to five points on five occasions during the final six-and-a-half minutes, however, each time Navy would have the perfect answer. After a Hunter jumper got the Paladins as close as five points a final time in the contest, at 68-63, with 2:30 remaining, the Midshipmen would close the game strong, using a 9-0 run in crunch time to close out the crucial road win.

A Njoku jumper in the lane as the shot clock expired ignited the run and gave the Midshipmen a 70-63 lead with just under two minutes left. After a Bothwell turnover, Njoku made it four-straight points on another short jumper in the paint to make it a 72-63 game. 

Following a missed Hunter three, the Paladins were forced to give a pair of fouls from Bothwell and Hunter to put the Midshipmen at the line and in the seven-foul, one-and-one bonus. Carter Jr. stepped to the line to knock down a pair of free throws, giving Navy a double-digit lead, at 74-63 with 57 seconds remaining. 

A missed Slawson triple would lead to Summers being fouled again, and he converted 1-of-2 from the charity stripe to make it a 75-63 game with 32 seconds remaining. A Summers steal and dunk brought the Navy bench to its feet, making it a 77-63 contest with 22 seconds remaining. 

The final points of the day came with 12 seconds remaining, as Hunter knocked down a three to provide the final margin of 11 points. 

Postgame Press Conference:

Furman head coach Bob Richey discusses the loss to Navy

Furman grinds Samford to close out a winning season

Furman quarterback Jace Wilson/photo courtesy of Furman sports information

Furman 41, Samford 34

Furman closed out its 2021 football season in a positive fashion, finishing the season with a bang, as the Paladins rushed for 358 yards en route to a 41-34 win over Samford at Saturday afternoon Seibert Stadium. 

With the win, the Paladins closed out their season with a 6-5 overall record and a 4-4 mark in SoCon action, while the Bulldogs completed the campaign with a 4-7 overall mark and a 3-5 record in league play.

The Paladins posted a huge 358-81 advantage in rushing yards, as Dominic Roberto pulverized the Bulldog defense for a career-high 216 yards on 22 rush attempts, however, did not record a rushing score in the contest. 

Also accounting for a large chunk of the ground production was Roberto’s backfield mate Devin Abrams, who finished with 110 yards on 18 carries, and Devin Wynn finished out a strong career rushing the ball for the Paladins, with a pair of scores via the ground, as he posted No. 30 and 31 rushing scores in his career to cap off a pair of Paladin scoring drives.

Along with the 358 yards on the ground, the Paladins were also able to have be effective through the air throwing the football, as signal-caller Jace Wilson completed 7-of-11 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown, finishing his rookie season with a 4-2 record as Furman’s starting quarterback. 

With the strong rushing performances of Roberto and Abrams, coupled with the passing efforts of Wilson, it led to a total of 503 yards of total offense, and marked the third time in the final four games the Paladins had posted a 400-yard day offensively. The 503 yards of total offense also marked the highest single-game total of total offense of the 2021 season. 

Not a bad way to close out the campaign, and with all but three starters returning on paper, the hopes are high that the Paladins can parlay Saturday’s regular-season finale in Homewood, Alabama into a very bright future. 

Junior tight end Ryan Miller capped off his 2021 season in style, with two catches for 65 yards, which included a 50-yard touchdown. Miller finished out the season hauling in 43 passes for 749 yards and seven touchdowns. Five of Miller’s seven scoring catches this season were 50 or more yards, including a season-long 87-yard scoring catch in the season-opening win over North Carolina A&T. Pretty solid for a player that was somehow left off the preseason All-SoCon teams. 

Not to be outdone, it was also a strong performance from the defense, which limited a high-powered Samford offense, which dropped 52 points and 464 yards of total offense against FBS Florida last Saturday, to just 34 points and 350 yards of total offense this past Saturday. The Bulldogs came into the final contest of the season with one of the nation’s most-potent offenses, averaging 38.3 PPG and 459.4 YPG of total offense, including 312.3 YPG through the air.

Furman’s defensive unit held the Bulldogs below all three totals, allowing four less points, 109 yards less total offense, and 43 less pass yards.

The Paladins ended up being led defensively by linebacker Braden Gilby’s 12 tackles, while DiMarcus Clay rounded out his career as a Paladin in strong fashion, posting six tackles and an interception and subsequent return of 32 yards to set up a Paladin touchdown in the first quarter.

How it Happened:

Samford came out and showed it was as good as advertised offensively, taking the opening drive of the football game and took a little over two minutes off the clock, as quarterback Liam Welch found wideout Jai’Rus Creammer on a 6-yard scoring strike to give the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead following Zach Williams’ PAT. The Bulldogs were able to cover 75 yards in eight plays and took just 2:11 off the clock to take their only lead of the day.

The Paladins would shut down the high-octane Samford offense on their next six possessions, allowing the Furman offense, which was under the direction of the rookie Wilson, more than enough time and cushion to overtake the Bulldogs. 

Furman would offer a response on their second possession of the day. Following a Samford three-and-out, the Paladins got the ball in good field position at their own 40 with 6:31 left in the opening quarter. After a 10-yard run by Roberto on the opening play of the drive, Wilson rolled right and found Miller on a dig route, which he converted into a 50-yard scoring strike to tie the game, 7-7, with 5:46 left in the quarter.

The Paladin defense would set up its second score of the day when DiMarcus Clay picked off a Liam Welch pass and returned it 32 yards to the Samford 2, setting up Furman’s second score of the day. Three plays following the Clay INT, Wilson scrambled right and ran it in from three yards out to make it a 14-7 Furman lead with 3:44 remaining in the the first quarter.

After Furman’s defense kept Samford’s offense in check, the Paladin offense would find the end zone for the third time in the contest two possessions later, as Wayne Anderson Jr. capped a five-play, 58-yard drive with an 8-yard scoring run with 11:19 remaining in the half, giving the Paladins a 21-7 lead.

Samford would score its final points of the opening half when Zach Williams connected on a 24-yard field goal with just 48 seconds remaining in the frame, making it a 21-10 game.

However, the Paladin offense wouldn’t be done scoring in the half, as Roberto took the Wilson handoff on the opening play of the ensuing drive and went 73 yards down to the Samford 2. The next play saw Devin Wynn find the end zone for the first of two scoring runs on the day, as his 2-yard scamper allowed Furman to take all the momentum to the halftime locker room, leading 28-10.

On the opening possession of the second half, Furman took full control of the contest when the Paladins used 11 plays, with 10 of them being of the rushing variety, to cover 75 yards and capped by another Wynn 2-yard scoring plunge to give the Paladins a 35-10 lead with 7:47 remaining in the third quarter.

The Bulldogs would score the next 10 points of the game, closing out the third quarter with a 40-yard field goal from Williams and a Welch 1-yard scoring run to make it a 35-20 game with five seconds to play in the quarter.

Furman used Timmy Bleekrode field goals of 33 and 22 yards, respectively, to snuff out any hopes of a Samford comeback. The Bulldogs would get fourth quarter touchdowns from Jay Stanton on a 3-yard run, and Welch’s final pass of his collegiate career would end up being a touchdown, as Montell Washington hauled in a 26-yard strike from the senior to set the final scoring margin at seven, 41-34. Furman recovered the ensuing on-sides kick and ran out the clock to preserve the win and the winning season. 

ETSU wins title/photo courtesy of ETSU sports information

East Tennessee State claims Southern Conference title:

In what was a thriller befitting of a game with so much at stake, the de facto Southern Conference title game between East Tennessee State and Mercer was a game that showcased the best two teams the improved SoCon has to offer, and at the end of the contest, the Bucs were 38-35 victors over the Mercer Bears at a packed William B. Greene Stadium.

The win gave ETSU its first outright Southern Conference crown and second league crown overall. The 2018 league title was won in a three-way tie with both Furman and Wofford, but Wofford won the tiebreaker due to least points allowed of the three teams. This time, the Bucs would need no tiebreaker to decide their automatic inclusion into the FCS postseason with its narrow three-point win in a see-saw contest at William B. Greene Stadium on Saturday.

The win, which came before an announced school-record crowd of 10,594 fans on-hand at Greene Stadium, saw the Bucs improve to 10-1 overall and 7-1 in league play. The 10 wins marks the most in a single regular-season in school history, and also matches the 1996 ETSU team for wins in a season, as that Bucs team finished with a 10-3 record. It marks just the third ETSU team in program history to win 10 games. 

Quay Holmes, who rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown, is now the school’s all-time leading rusher, surpassing former great Brandon Walker (1996-99) and Holmes will head to the postseason with 4,142 rushing yards.

The Bears will await their playoff fate on Sunday afternoon, as they hope to receive an at-large invitation to the postseason. The Bears finished out a 10-game slate with a 7-3 overall record and a 6-2 mark in league play. The Bears were one of only two SoCon teams to have played a full eight-game spring slate, joining The Citadel in that distinction. 

Tune into ESPNU at 12:30 p.m. EST on Sunday, Nov. 21, to find all the playoff information for both ETSU and Mercer.

Furman gets defensive in win over Radford

Senior forward Jalen Slawson/photo courtesy of Furman sports information

GREENVILLE, S.C.—Furman used one of its best defensive performances of the season to move to 3-1 in the early portion of the 2021-22 season, holding visiting Radford to a sub-40% shooting (37.5%) performance to get a 17-point win in its second game at Timmons Arena this season.

The win saw the Paladins improve to 76-12 inside the friendly confines of Timmons Arena since the start of the 2015-16 season with the win. 

How it happened:

Jalen Slawson finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds to lead Furman to its 22nd-straight home non-conference victory, as the Paladins downed Radford, 81-64, Friday evening at Timmons Arena.

With the win, Furman improved to 3-1 overall, while Radford fell to 1-3 in what was the first-ever meeting between the two programs on the men’s college basketball hardwood. The Highlanders will return to action tomorrow to take on the Navy Midshipmen (1-2) on Saturday at 5 p.m. The Paladins will face that same Navy squad on Sunday at 3 p.m.

Slawson, a senior forward from Summerville, S.C., posted his first double-double of the season, as he connected on 5-of-9 shots from the field and was a perfect 6-for-6 from the line to account for his scoring night. In addition, Slawson also dished out a pair of assists, posted four steals and blocked two shots, as he paced four Paladins in double figures in the win.

Senior Mike Bothwell made it four-straight games in double figures, posting 15 points, dished out a team-high six assists and added four boards. Bothwell connected on 4-of-7 shots from the field, including going 1-for-2 from three-point range and like Slawson, was a perfect 6-for-6 from the charity stripe. 

Conley Garrison continued his strong play in a Paladin uniform, as the grad transfer from Drury University added 14 points on 4-of-5 shooting from the field, which included a 3-for-4 from three-point range, and was 3-for-4 from the charity stripe to account for his 14 points. He also added five rebounds, four steals, one assist and a block to round out a solid all-around effort. 

Rounding out the Paladins in double figures in the contest was sophomore forward Garrett Hien, who added 11 points, five rebounds and dished out five assists. 

Radford had just one player finish in double figures, as junior Shaquan Jules finished with 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting from the field, and was a perfect 4-for-4 from the foul like in the win. 

Senior guard Josiah Jeffers finished the contest just missing double figures with nine points on 3-of-9 shooting from the field, 1-for-2 from three-point land, and a perfect 2-for-2 from the foul stripe. Forward Chyree Walker pulled down nine boards to go with eight points, as the Highlanders were able to end the night with a slight 35-34 

Unlike its previous three games this season, Furman needed its defense to spark its offense, as the Paladins went to the first media timeout treading water offensively, and off to a slow start offensively.

However, despite Furman missing its first eight shots of the game, it was only a three-pointer by Highlanders guard Tai’Reon Joseph that separated the two teams at the first media timeout, which was a testament to a strong start defensively, as the Paladins held Radford to just 1-for-8 shooting from the field in the opening few minutes until the offense could get its bearings. 

Furman’s first points came from its bench, which contributed a total of 17 points in the contest, as Marcus Foster’s layup got the Paladins on the scoreboard with 15:25 remaining in the half. His first two points were part of a night which saw Foster match his career-high for scoring, previously establishing that point total on two occasions. 

Furman then got back-to-back three-pointers from Alex Williams, who scored his first six points of his Paladin career in quick succession, as his second triple tied the game, 8-8, with 13:47 to play in the first half. Slawson then following with his first points of the night to give the Paladins their first lead of the contest, at 10-8. 

Furman would eventually carry a 38-28 lead into the halftime locker room on the strength of a 9-0 run to finish out the half, which was unlike each of the previous two games that has seen the opposition close out each of the previous two halves by closing out on runs and taking leads into the halftime locker room. 

Furman would assume the lead for good on a fast-break layup from Foster, which game the Paladins a 20-19 lead at that particular point in the contest. A pair of Bothwell free throws and a layup by Slawson would extend the Paladin lead to five. 

A Dravon Mangum three-pointer got the Highlanders back to within three, at 24-21, but that’s as close as Radford would get the rest of the half. 

Radford continued to hang around in the second half despite Furman’s best efforts to try and pull away in the contest. Following two more Bothwell free throws, which gave the Paladins an eight-point lead, at 47-39, with 15:17 left, Camron McNeil’s triple on the other end brought the Paladin lead back to five, at 47-42, with 12:53 remaining. 

Furman would extend its lead to seven (49-42) following a layup from James Repass, however, two Lewis Djonkam free throws made it a five-point game once again, at 49-44. A three-pointer by Alex Hunter on Furman’s next possession took Furman lead to eight, at 52-44, with 12:08 remaining. Mangum’s three on the other end got the Highlanders’ deficit back to five, however.

The Highlanders would eventually get as close as four, at 54-50, on a Rashun Williams with 10:08 left. A 7-0 run, which was capped by a beautiful driving assist and kick out from Slawson-to-Garrison for a left elbow three increased Furman’s lead back to double digits, at 61-50, with 7:37 left. 

Following a Walker layup, which cut the lead back under 10 for the Highlanders, at 61-52, with 6:23 remaining, the Paladins went ahead by double digits for good when Bothwell canned a triple from the right corner with just under six minutes remaining, pushing the Paladin lead to 12 (64-52) with 5:58 remaining. A Slawson dunk in transition moments later when Radford turned up the pressure took Furman’s lead to 14, at 66-52, with 5:28 left. 

Furman coasted from there, as the Highlanders would never get within 13 points the remainder of the game. 

A look at the stats…

Statistically, Radford held advantages in total rebounds (35-34), second-chance points (16-8) points in the paint (34-28), total assists (19-18) and points off turnovers (17-16). 

The Paladins finished out the contest with advantages in fast-break points (11-4) and bench points (17-16). The Paladins forced 15 Radford turnovers, while committing just 12. 

Furman finished the night connecting on 48.1% (26-of-54) from the field, which included a 47.4% (9-of-19) from three-point range. The Paladins were also impressive from the foul line, going 20-of-22 from the stripe (90.9%). 

Defensively, Furman limited the Highlanders to just 37.5% (24-of-64) from the field, and just 30.8% (8-of-26) from three-point land in the contest.

Postgame:

Jalen Slawson/Conley Garrison

Furman head coach Bob Richey

Mercer and ETSU will decide SoCon title Saturday

Bucs LB Jared Folks/photo courtesy of ETSU athletics

The Game: No. 21/23 Mercer (7-2, 6-1 SoCon at No. 8/10 East Tennessee State (9-1, 6-1 SoCon)

The Venue: William B. Greene Stadium/Johnson City, Tenn

The Time: 1 p.m. EST

The Series: Tied 3-3

The Coaches: Mercer–Drew Cronic (12-8/2nd year at Mercer)/ETSU–Randy Sanders (24-16/4th year at ETSU)

Saturday’s 100th season of SoCon football will come to historic end on Saturday for either East Tennessee State or Mercer when the two square off in Johnson City for the de facto Southern Conference football title matchup.

Mercer is chasing its first-ever Southern Conference or conference title since returning to the gridiron after a 72-year hiatus as a Pioneer Football League member in 2013, while the Bucs are chasing their second SoCon title in a three-year span, and a win at William B. Greene Stadium Saturday would give ETSU its first SoCon Football crown outright and first-ever outright bid to the FCS postseason.

Football reborn in two football-crazed states:

Both the Bucs and Bears made a dedication to rejoin and join the league following the departures of Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Elon following the 2013 season.

Both have football program’s brought back from the proverbial dead. The Bears waited a little longer to restart theirs than ETSU. In 2013, the Bears resurrected their program following seven decades on the shelf under the direction of former Furman head coach Bobby Lamb.

After a successful 10-win season in its first season back, Mercer decided to go from non-scholarship football of the Pioneer League to scholarship football of the Southern Conference. The 2014 campaign would be the Bears’ first season of football in the league.

In 2015, ETSU brought its football program back as an independent member for one season before joining the SoCon in earnest. The Bucs brought back their football program under the direction of former North Carolina head coach Carl Torbush.

Though the Bucs didn’t have the kind of success right away at scholarship football right away that the Bears had at the non-scholarship level in season one back after a 12-year absence, as the Bucs went just 2-9, there were glimpses of potential.

In fact, ETSU and Mercer squared off on the gridiron and the game wasn’t close, with Lamb’s Bears lighting up the scoreboard with a 52-0 win over the Bucs. It would be the final time the two would meet as non-conference members. That meeting back in 2015 marked the first-ever between the two programs.

Mercer’s Story

The Bears would face off against defending champion and No. 16 Furman in their first-ever Southern Conference game on Sept. 6, 2014. Adding even more drama to the already historic matchup was the fact that Furman was the alma mater Lamb, the new Mercer boss in his second season at the helm, would be coaching against the program he helped lead to the national title game as a quarterback in 1985 and led to a SoCon title in 2004 en route to garnering SoCon Coach of the Year honors.

On that warm evening in Macon at the beautiful new Five Star Stadium, Mercer football in the SoCon was officially born, and though heavy underdogs coming in against the more polished, and championship mature Paladins, the Bears put themselves in position to win the game in the fourth quarter before eventually falling 25-20 on a late 33-yard INT return for a score by Furman defensive end Gary Wilkins.

That matchup offered the 12,227 fans in attendance a glimpse of what Mercer could be as a football program, which was a chance to be a championship level football program.

Some seven years later and under Lamb’s former assistant coach at Furman, Drew Cronic, the Bears find themselves in position to claim their first-ever Southern Conference title against one of the program’s that it entered the league with, as ETSU, VMI and Mercer all joined the league within a three-year span following the departures of Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Elon.

The Bears would finish that 2014 season with a majority of non-scholarship, walk-on players and went on to a 6-6 overall record, which included a 1-6 mark in Southern Conference play.

The Bears’ lone league win in 2014 would come in a 27-24 win over VMI on the road. Ironically, Mercer’s lone SoCon loss to date in 2021 has come against the Keydets, who torched the Bears 45-7 in Macon back on Oct. 16 to the defending league champion Keydets.

While Lamb would help lead the program out of obscurity, following a 4-8 season, which included a 3-5 mark in Southern Conference play under the sixth-year head coach, the Bears and president Bill Underwood decided it was time for the program which he resurrected from scratch to go in a different direction.

In another interesting twist to this tale, Mercer would turn to Lamb’s longtime assistant during each of his nine seasons as head coach of the Paladins–Drew Cronic–to be the second head coach of the Mercer football program in its current form. Cronic, who returned to be the Furman offensive coordinator under first-year head coach Clay Hendrix in 2017, helping the Paladins return to the postseason for the first time since 2013, would enjoy big-time success as a head coach at Lenoir Rhyne before being named the Mercer head coach in December of 2019.

Coming into Saturday’s contest, Mercer has an all-time SoCon record of 29-30, and will be playing its 60th game as league member Saturday. A win would give the Bears a SoCon title, as well as a chance to even its league mark to .500 in now its eighth official season as a league member.

The Bucs and Bears will be meeting for the seventh time on Saturday when the two tee-it-up in Johnson City for the league crown. The Bears claimed a 21-13 win over the Bucs at Five Star Stadium this past spring, allowing VMI to take a step closer to a SoCon regular-season crown and prevent ETSU from remaining in the league title race.

ETSU’s Story

Following what was a tough 2015 season, which saw just a total of two wins, East Tennessee State would go on to show glimpses of being able to be a title contender in the SoCon in the very near future, as the Bucs would threaten a .500 record with a 5-6 mark. An opening season 20-17 was evidence of just how far the Bucs had come in just a year since having football back on campus.

The Bucs would finish 2-6 in Southern Conference play in their first season as a league member, which was good enough for a sixth-place finish in ETSU’s first season back as a Southern Conference football member.

The Bucs would post league wins over both Western Carolina (W, 34-31) and and No. 18 Samford (W, 15-14) to bookend their conference slate with wins in a season that would see a record four teams chosen for the FCS postseason. Losses in that first Southern Conference season back in the league since 2003 came at Mercer (L, 13-21), at The Citadel (L, 10-45), vs. Furman (L, 7-52), at VMI (L, 7-30), vs. Chattanooga (L, 7-37) and at Wofford (L, 0-31).

The 2017 season saw the Bucs go 4-7 overall with an identical 2-6 league mark, which was once again good enough for a seventh-place finish in league play. Wins in league play would come against Mercer (W, 26-23 OT) and VMI (W, 24-6).

Probably no one could have foreseen what was coming following the 2016 after having posted just a 4-12 record in just two seasons back as a Southern Conference member. However, it would turn out to be a magical run and a breakthrough run for the ETSU football program in 2018.

First, it would mark the end of the road for the man the helped bring ETSU football back, in Carl Torbush, as he would announce his retirement following the ’17 campaign, making the way for a new head coach most ETSU fans would be very familiar win, in Randy Sanders.

Sanders, who was the former quarterbacks coach for the Tennessee Volunteers and was a part of the 1998 national title run for the Vols, returned to the sidelines in the Volunteer State as the leader of the Bucs football program going forward in 2018.

While most figured he’d figure the 2018 campaign cutting his teeth as the new head coach of the Bucs in just ETSU’s third season back at the helm, that would match Sanders’ timeline for success in Johnson City.

With a group of talented and veteran players returning to the fold for the Bucs, ETSU would break through and win its first-ever Southern Conference regular-season title, tying with both Wofford and Furman for the regular-season title, and the Bucs would return to the playoffs for the first time since the 1996 season and for just the second time in school history by finishing 8-4 overall and 6-2 in league play.

The Bucs would win their six Southern Conference games by a combined 17 points, with the season turning in a positive direction with one of the miraculous come-from-behind wins in school history. The Bucs would trail Furman 27-6 with about 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter in their SoCon home opener against Furman.

That’s when Sanders made the change under center, subbing out Temple transfer Logan Marchi and putting in the veteran Austin Herink. The rest, they say, is history. It was if Herink put on a cape, and he could do virtually no wrong in leading the Bucs all the way back from the dead, as he helped the Bucs to the largest come-from-behind win in program history, as the Bucs posted a 29-27 win over the Paladins.

From there, ETSU would only lose games in league play on the road at No. 12 Wofford (L, 17-30) and vs. Samford (L, 27-38), but managed to qualify for the FCS postseason as an at-large, with Wofford qualifying as the auto-bid winner, as the tiebreaker would be decided on least points allowed.

The odd team left out would be Furman. ETSU went on the road in the opening round of the postseason against perennial OVC power Jacksonville State, and after holding a third quarter lead in the contest, a costly fumble late in the contest by star running back Quay Holmes would ultimately prove crucial, as the Gamecocks would hold off the Bucs 34-27 in there opening round of the FCS playoffs.

The 2019 season would see many of the same wins that went the Bucs way in close fashion in 2018 go the other way, as the much younger ETSU Bucs lost six of their seven SoCon games by a touchdown or less in a reverse trend to the previous campaign. Despite going just 3-9 overall and posting its worst league record (1-7) since returning to the SoCon, there was still positive optimism going forward towards the 2020.

Behind a new quarterback and first-time starter Tyler Riddell under center, most figured the Bucs would only get better going forward. Then COVID-19 hit, moving the 2020 season from the fall to the spring.

When the Bucs finally took the field in the spring, it would end up playing only six of what was supposed to be an eight-game slate, with both Wofford and Chattanooga opting out of the spring during the season and before either played the Bucs.

ETSU went 4-2, with the lone losses of the spring coming against Furman (L, 13-17) and on the road at Mercer (L, 13-21), with that loss officially taking the Bucs out of both the SoCon title race.

ETSU’s 24-17 win over No. 10 VMI was the lone time the Keydets, who ended up winning the spring SoCon title, and that gave ETSU confidence going forward into the 2021 fall campaign.

The Bucs, along with Samford, were one of the “first four out” in the FCS playoffs in the spring, according to the ESPN selection show panelists.

The Bucs have been example of an improving Southern Conference this season, and knocked off Vanderbilt (23-3) in the season opener, and have lost only once in 10 outings this season. That lone setback came in a 21-16 mid-season clash against Chattanooga. It has put the Bucs in position for another first, which is a first SoCon outright crown.

Since returning to the Southern Conference officially in 2016, the Bucs have posted a 21-24 record in the league.

Predicting the Game:
If you’re looking for a lot of offense, this probably isn’t the game for you. In fact, I fully expect this game to be a defensive slugfest and that’s because that type of game seems to favor Mercer’s chances of winning.

The Bears lone loss in league play came at Five Star Stadium in what was a bit of a one-off type contest, as early turnovers by Mercer spelled out what was going to be a long afternoon, as the Bears dropped a 45-7 home contest to the Keydets.

Mercer quarterback Fred Payton (91-of-164 passing, 1,288 yds, 10 TDs, 7 INTs) leads a Bears offense that has a bevy of tricky formations, but a lot of it is window dressing to set up different ways for talented running backs duo Fred Davis (145 rush att, 776 yds, 12 TDs, 5.4 YPC/12 rec, 111 yds, 9.2 YPR) and Brandon Marshall (68 rush att, 334 yds, 3 TDs, 4.9 YPG) to find ways to get yards on the ground. When Payton does go to the air, they will look to Devron Harper (22 rec, 376 yds, 1 TD, 17.1 YPR) and Ty James (18 rec, 387 yds, 6 TDs, 21.5 YPR).

While the Bears rank 11th nationally in rushing offense (214.6 YPG), its been a pretty tough defense to break through this season, with the Bears ranking 19th nationally in total defense (316.6 YPG). Leading the talented orange crush defense, with linebacker Ken Standley (42.5 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 3 PBUs, 3 FRs) leading the unit.

ETSU’s ground oriented offense has been led by Tyler Riddell (147-of-242 passing, 1,869 yds, 13 TDs, 3 INTs) once again this season, and he’s steadily improved with each outing this season.

Riddell has two of the top running backs in FCS to hand the ball to, in Quay Holmes (213 rush att, 1,299 yds, 15 TDs, 6.1 YPR/16 rec, 191 yds, 1 TD, 11.9 YPR) and Jacob Saylors (120 rush att, 932 yds, 10 TDs, 7.8 YPC/12 rec, 128 yds, 1 TD, 10.7 YPR), who both went for over 200 yards rushing the last time out in the 56-35 win at Western Carolina last weekend. Saylors set a new school record with 266 yards to go with three rushing scores in the win over the Catamounts.

While the Bucs favor the ground, they can be balanced offensively, as evidenced by big-play threat wideout Will Huzzie’s (45 rec, 683 yds, 3 TDs, 15.2 YPR) numbers through the first 10 games this season.

The Bucs have seen some of their defensive numbers take a hit in recent weeks, but still have the nation’s No. 55 ranked defense (360.5 YPG). The Bucs have been led on the defensive side of the football by Donovan Manuel (97 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 2 PBUs, 1 FF, 1 FR, 2 QBHs).

I feel like ETSU wins this game 21-17, though I think Mercer gets some help and gets the SoCon a second bid. I don’t see a way that Chattanooga or VMI has a path to the postseason, however, unfortunately.