GREENVILLE, S.C.--Saturday’s Timmons Arena Finale will be a mix of emotions, and one that will present the facility one its fans normally routinely do each season--honor its own for four years of service.
However, Saturday will hopefully be the final time in the history of the program that will have to honor a player with a life taken too soon, in Mercer senior forward Jibri Bryan, who was shot and killed outside a Mercer convenience store nine days ago.
Perseverance of Bryan Is An Example To Followed:
Bryan was winding down his career as a Bear, had overcome two knee surgeries to return to the lineup for the Bears--a real picture of perseverance and a member of the NCAA Good Works Team. Bryan was a player that never stopped trying, never gave up and it’s a testament to the type person he was brought up to be as a young man, and that kind of coach he had for six years at Mercer, in Bob Hoffman--a man of deep faith himself--certainly seemed to have rubbed off much on the always-smiling Bryan.
To the Bryan family and to the Mercer basketball team, I know I speak for all the Southern Conference, fans, players, as well as the staff of mid-major madness and coaches in wishing you the peace only God can provide during this difficult time. Bryan was the type player a coach only can dream to come across--one that learns the lessons of life, yet always strives to reach the mountaintop--that reaches much further than the game of basketball.
In a much different way, the careers of Kendrec Ferrara (Cape Coral, Florida), Stephen Croone (Covington, GA) and Larry Wideman (Loris, S.C.) will be remembered for their perseverance as well, although unlike the struggles overcome by Bryan, the struggles encountered by this trio during their first three regular-seasons was a testament to the character, hard work and dedication for each of the three young men.
From the start of the 2012-13 season until the end of the regular-season of the 2014-15 season, Furman’s basketball program reached lows so low, few could at times bare to watch. Leading up to the 2014-15 Southern Conference Tournament, Furman’s then junior trio had been apart of teams that had 24-67 over a three-year span, went through a coaching change following their freshman seasons, yet remained in the program and made a commitment of true loyalty that is most admirable.
Croone, Widmeman, and Ferrara won’t realize their impact on Furman basketball until long after Furman has raised more Southern Conference regular-season titles into the rafters jam-packed Timmons Arena and punched a few more NCAA Tournament tickets--a vision realized long ago back in the mid-1990s of bringing basketball on-campus at Furman, and in 1997-98, that vision was a reality, but the basketball didn’t always follow suit, even though there were glimpses, such as the 2010-11 season, which saw the Paladins win 22 games, and the following season, which saw the Paladins finish with 15 wins, for a combined 37 victories in two seasons.
But credit has to be given to the three players, who persevered through three of the toughest regular-seasons in the history of Paladin basketball. Then came last season’s Southern Conference Tournament. The Paladins were the No. 10 seed overall and stood about as much of a chance of winning four games in a row and a Southern Conference Tournament title, as a No. 16 seed defeating a No. 1 in the Southern Conference Tournament title game. The thing is, it nearly happened. Something that hadn’t happened in dating back four seasons--the Paladins won three-in-a-row.
The three seniors--Ferrara, Wideman and Croone were suddenly being rewarded for all their hard work on the basketball court was starting to show the fruits of the labor.
In fact, the Paladins would nearly complete the impossible by knocking off The Citadel (73-57), No. 2 Chattanooga (69-67) and No. 3 Mercer (52-49), making it all the way to the title game, where it eventually faced Wofford in the championship game.
The game teetered on the brink each way several times throughout the contest before eventually being knocked off by Wofford, 67-64, in the regular-season finale.
The Paladins, and their three seniors, would start the season slow in 2015-16, as the Paladins finished non-conferernce play with just a 6-7 overall record, and it was beginning to look like the run to the the league title was just a flash in the pan type situation, however, been buoyed by its three senior leaders in different ways with the commencement of Southern Conference play.
The Paladins caught fire during conference play, and Furman finds itself entering its final conference game with a chance to win 13 home games for just the fourth time in school history, with 13 wins happening twice and the last time it happened being the 1990-91 season, when the Paladins
The Paladins now have their sights set on a 13th home win, sending what has been a remarkable run at home this season. With Chattanooga losing to Western Carolina on Thursday night, the conference standings are all at once at flux, with the Paladins now trailing Chattanooga by only two games in the loss column, the race could get really interesting starting with today’s contest with Mercer.
The three seniors of Larry Wideman, Kendrec Ferrara and Stephen Croone have combined to score 3,360 career points, 1,240 rebounds, 554 assists, 247 steals and 166 blocked shots.
For all the futility that saw the Paladin trio go just 24-67 over the first three seasons, the Paladins are 18-12 since the start of last year’s Southern Conference Tournament--It’s no doubt been quite a turnaround for three players that been the foundation of bringing back basketball to Furman.
Now, it’s the final time the three will be on the floor together in the regular-season in front of the home folks. Timmons Arena has been good to the Paladins, and eventually to Ferrara, Wideman and Croone. The trio has provided each of memories we will take with us for a lifetime.
Larry Wideman sings the national anthem and then promptly goes out and scores 14 points in an early-season win over Appalachian State last season.
Or, what about Kendrec Ferrara’s career-high 27 points in a win at The Citadel as a sophomore, or his 12 combined blocks each of the past two seasons at Timmons against Chattanooga.
These three players have proven to be trailblazers and real example of what it means to stick it out and the each of the three embody the type of student-athlete can build a program up around. They endured a few wounds along the way, but never quit and had the kind of attitude and character that puts Furman with a chance to make their
careers shine even more than they have in the past few weeks. In their last 33 games, the trio has guided Furman to a 20-13 record.
Notes on the Matchup:
—Since joining the Southern Conference last season, Bob Hoffman’s Bears have not loss consecutive Southern Conference games bouncing back after each league loss last season. Mercer is coming off back-to-back losses for the first time since losing on the road at ETSU and Western Carolina earier In fact prior to this season, the last time that Mercer lost consecutive league games came back in its Atlantic Sun days, which was during the 2011-12 and a trip to the River City of Jacksonville, as the Bears dropped back-to-back games to Jacksonville (L, 81-75) and North Florida (L, 75-66) on Feb. 18 and 20 of that season. The last time the Bears lost three conference in a row was in the 2010-11 season, when the Bears lost to the Tennessee trio of at Belmont (L, 89-67/Dec. 2, 2010), at Lipscomb (L, 77-65/Dec. 4, 2010) and East Tennessee State (L, 62-61, Jan. 3).
—Statistically speaking, Furman and Mercer are among the top defensive teams in the league, with the Paladins entering the contest leading the league in scoring defense (64.6 PPG), while Mercer is second in the league in scoring defense this season, yielding just 66.5 PPG.
HONORING LEGENDS: The 1990-91 SoCon Regular-Season Champs To Be Honored At Halftime
February has been good to Furman basketball over the years, particularly right around Valentine’s Day, which includes two of the greatest milestones achieved in the history of the Paladin basketball program.
One of those, of course, was the 100-point game by Frank Selvy and the other was the 103-94 win by Furman on Feb. 11, 1991 over 10th-ranked East Tennessee State being the other. Below is a brief synopsis of one of the greatest regular-season wins in Furman basketball history.
Feb. 11, 1991 Paladins Take Down No. 10 ETSU
I remember the excitement reverberating through the "Brown Box" that night as the final buzzer sounded, bringing an end to a remarkable 104-93, Furman win over No. 10 East Tennessee State in front of a frenzied sell-out crowd of better than 5,400.
The high-flying Bucs, known for their acrobatics above the rim, with supreme athletes, such as Greg Denis and Calvin Talford, and the straw that stirred the drink, Keith "Mister" Jennings.
The Paladins would lead 49-46 at the half, and took as big a lead as 18,at 88-70, following a pair of Technical fouls issued to the frustrated Bucs, one to Marty Story–a former football player–the other to Rodney English for hanging on the rim on a defensive rebound.
The inside-out tandem of Hal Henderson and Bruce Evans was something special to watch in the contest, with Henderson having a career night by scoring 29 points, while Evans controlled things underneath with 19 points and eight boards. Tracy Garrick and Derrick Waugh added 18 points apiece, while Chris Bass rounded out the Paladins in double figures, chipping in 13 points.
But Henderson stole the show on a night when most were coming to see what all the buzz about ETSU’s point guard Mister Jennings was, hitting his first five triples and his first six shots from the field, out-shining the Bucs’ bright star most of the evening.
In the losing effort, Mister Jennings posted a then-career high 33 points, while Alvin West added 13 and Jerry Pelphrey 10 in the losing cause.
Both teams shot the ball extremely well all evening, with the Paladins connecting on 53.6% from the field, while ETSU was 52.9% for the evening. Furman claimed a slight, 37-34, advantage on the boards.
From a Furman standpoint, this was truly the most memorable matchup between the two in series history, and to this day ranks as one of Furman’s greatest moments on the hardwood.
Some Legendary Moments: