GREENVILLE, S.C.--When Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman was interviewed after the Bears had survived a furious rally from Furman in Macon to defeat the Paladins, 69-65, he commented that Furman had the quickest guards in the SoCon.
The rest of the SoCon is finding out just how accurate a statement that was from Hoffman, whose Bears remain right in the thick of the Southern Conference title race to catch Chattanooga alongside the Paladins, sitting just a half-game behind Furman for second place overall in the SoCon standings, at 6-3.
Saturday afternoon saw Stephen Croone and Devin Sibley put on quite the show, facing two of the best scoring guards in the league statistically coming into the matchup, in East Tennessee State's Ge'Lawn Guyn and T.J. Cromer, who entered averaging an impressive 17.4 PPG and 15.8 PPG, respectively, this season.
However, Furman's success is more than just guard play, as its bigs have performed as well as any in the SoCon this season, as both Kris Acox and Matt Rafferty have certainly held up their end of the respective bargains, especially on the backboards, where Rafferty recorded his sixth double-double of the season with 11 points and 10 boards in Saturday's 74-70 win.
But when one examines the Paladins and their makeup as a basketball team, it's Croone, Sibley, John Davis III and Jonathan Jean that fuel the team's quickness and ability to get to the basket and get the team into their rhythm offensively. Daniel Fowler and Larry Wideman have proven to be the Paladins' main defensive stoppers, and oftentimes draw the toughest defensive assignments for Furman.
But without John Davis III yesterday, the Paladins were down to one less guard in the rotation yesterday, and that didn't seem to be much of an issue for about 35 minutes, and then ETSU turned up the pressure against a fatigued Furman team.
Fortunately for the Paladins, it was Croone and Sibley that did enough of the damage in their 35 minutes of court action on Saturday afternoon at Timmons Arena to ensure the Paladins would emerge with their fourth-straight win of the season, including combining for 21 of the Paladins' 74 points in the win. It matched the production of Guyn and Cromer, but it was a much more efficient combined effort from the Bucs' guards.
Croone and Sibley combined to knock down 12-of-23 shots from the field, while their opposition--Guyn and Cromer--knocked down a combined 12-of-32 shots from the field. Sibley did his damage from beyond the arc, hitting 3-of-5 shots from long range, while Croone went a perfect 10-of-10 from the line, as the Paladins finished 16-of-19 from the stripe.
The recent flurry of good play from the Paladin backcourt rotation has contributed in a big way Furman's first four-game winning streak since the 2010-11 season.
"Man, I didn't know that," Sibley said with a grin. "It's a very big deal and on top of that it's just an honor to be playing with the team we have and how much growth we have made, but we don't plan on stopping here. We're gonna keep on going."
Sibley, a Knoxville native, has seemed to have his best for the Bucs as of late, scoring 29 and 20 points against a team located within the Tri-Cities area, and his 29 points in a road loss at ETSU last season were a career-high for the Volunteer State native. His 20-point effort in the four-point win over the Bucs was his best performance of the season, and he has now scored in double-figures in eight-straight games.
"It feels very good to have a game like this. I've had a lot doubts and I've heard of a lot of people say I wouldn't have the impact this year that I had last year, and I struggled the first part of the year, so it feels good to have a game like this, but as I said before, it's on to the next one, " Sibley said.
For Croone, it's been about getting to the free throw line in each of the past two games, which were two physical and mentally challenging games against a pair of tough foes, in Western Carolina and East Tennessee State. Since going 50% (5-for-10) from the charity stripe in an 89-86 loss at The Citadel, Croone has been near-flawless from the free throw line, as he has gone 36-of-44 from the stripe in Furman's four-straight wins, including going a perfect 6-for-6 from the line against both ETSU and Wofford, who are two of the top teams in the Southern Conference.
It's not clear the duration of the injury to John Davis III, so it might be incumbent upon Croone and Sibley to manage even more responsibility as the season stretches into the final month of the regular-season, starting Thursday night at Samford.