Croone's Season-high 31 points Propels Furman to ‘Legendary' Day
GREENVILLE, S.C.--Furman basketball has seen few mountaintop moments over the past 25 years, but Saturday's 85-74 win over Southern Conference foe Mercer marked a school-record tying 13th home win at home, as season-standard 2,368 fans looked on at Timmons Arena.
Furman's win coupled with East Tennessee State's 76-68 loss to Chattanooga, Furman moved to 17-11 overall and 11-4 in SoCon play. The 13 home victories mark the most since 1990-91, and coincidentally, during the halftime festivities, it was the 1990-91 team that was honored for its regular-season Southern Conference title run, fashioning a perfect 13-0 home mark and an 11-3 SoCon record to tie for the league crown.
With two wins in its last three Southern Conference games--all away from Timmons Arena--would give the Paladins 13 Southern Conference wins, which would be the most since Eddie Holbrook's Paladins went 14-1 in league play in 1979-80, which was also the last time the Paladins went to the Big Dance. Wins in all three games at Wofford (Feb. 20), at East Tennessee State (Feb.25) and at Western Carolina (Feb. 27) would match those school-record 14 wins accomplished some 35 years ago. One win in the final three ensures Furman of tying the 2010-11 team, which finished the year 12-6 in SoCon action.
The Paladins won 10-straight home games following a 70-50 home setback to Gardner-Webb in December, and the 13 home wins matches a school standard set three other times in the history of Furman basketball, most recently in 1990-91.
On a day when past met present, it was Furman senior Stephen Croone made the most of his final regular-season home game in Timmons Arena, pouring in a season-high 31 points before making his final exit--an apropos exit with a kiss of the Diamond "F" Logo at mid court before exiting to the sound of a loud roar on-hand at Timmons Arena, subbing out of the game with 19 seconds remaining, met by an embrace from his coach--the one that convinced him to believe, and trust, arriving on the heels of a seven-win campaign in 2012-13.
That decision seems to have paid off for both Croone and Medved, and that trust was no more than in that emotional embrace between player and coaches. It was the same thankful moment that the two other seniors, Larry Wideman and Kendrec Ferrara, shared with each of their coaches upon exit.
It had been a career of ups and downs for Croone, but it was a day in which he shined among legendary piers from the past, including the ‘Man of the Century' Frank Selvy, who posted 100 points 62 years ago to the day against Newberry. It was the No. 13 that seemingly kept re-occurring, but it was the 31 from Croone that made a big difference in the 11-point win.
"That kid is a (future Furman) Hall of Famer and he had a Hall-of-Fame performance today," Furman coach Niko Medved said. "To do it on Senior Day in this kind of emotional game was just off the charts.
"At some point, you can always replace points, rebounds, blocks and assists. What you can never replace is the people. These (Croone, Ferrara, Wideman) are three of the best kids that I've ever been around in coaching. They're better human beings than they are players and they exemplify what a student-athlete is supposed to be," Medved added.
On what was the final home game for Paladin the trio of seniors, Croone, Ferrara and Wideman combined to score 42 of Furman's 85 points, and also added six assists, three blocks and three boards between the three of them in the win.
Head coach Bob Hoffman's Mercer Bears have been battling personal adversity, losing a teammate (Jibri Bryan) to tragedy a little less than two weeks ago in a shooting at a local Macon convenience store, and then suspensions to key contributors, in Stephon Jelks and Desmond Ringer , has led to one of the most challenging periods in Hoffman's coaching career. And with all that, had games against three of the top four teams in the SoCon, including two on the road, as the Bears faced Wofford, Furman and Chattanooga.
However, for a program that has made a college basketball postseason each of the past four seasons, including a CIT title in 2011-12 and a win over Duke in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, the Paladins didn't feel sorry for the Bears, who were missing two starters on Saturday. And Hoffman, though it has been a couple of weeks of battling hardship and tragedy, the winning head coach isn't one to make excuses, even given the very trying couple of weeks it has been in Macon for the team and its fans.
He's a competitor of the fiercest variety, but even he just threw up his hands as if to not have the answers when Larry Wideman canned a jumper to put Furman up 17 (78-61) with 4:35 remaining. The loss represented an unfamiliarity for Mercer basketball that has been rare in now Hoffman's eighth year at the helm, especially in the past five, which is three-straight losses.
In fact, the loss was Mercer's third in conference game in a row, which hasn't happened since the 2010-11 season, when the Bears dropped games to Belmont (L, 89-67), Lipscomb (L, 77-65) and East Tennessee State (L, 62-61). Coming into this afternoon's game at Furman, the Bears.
It didn't appear it would be that way from the outset, however, as the Bears connected on their first nine shots of the contest, and didn't record a miss until the 13:30 mark of the opening half to lead by as many as nine (21-12) with 13:10 remaining in the half.
However, Furman would come alive from that point, and out-scored the Bears 25-19 for the remainder of the half, as the Bears went to the locker room with a three-point lead (40-37) despite shooting a blistering 64 (15-of-24) from the field in the opening 20 minutes.
The second half would belong to the Paladins, however, and it would sparked on an early play from Croone, who missed a triple on Furman's first possession of the second half, made amenze, as he quickly anticipated and intercepted a Phillip Leonard outlet pass intended for Jordan Strawberry, and went in for the uncontested jam, bringing the Paladins to within one, at 40-39.
"I always try to have a next play mentality and try not to get too down after a missed shot. I saw I think Phillip Leonard getting ready to pass it and Jordan Strawberry calling for it, and I got it," Croone said.
That would set the tone for a big second half for the Paladins, pouring in 48 second-half points, and the game would go back and forth for the first few minutes of the second half. However, after a Strawberry jumper put the Bears ahead 47-46 with , John Davis III responded a three at the 15:43 mark to give the Paladins the lead for good. Croone then went on a 7-2 run on his own, hitting a couple of three and a free throw following a hard foul in which it took him several moments to collect himself.
The run had extended Furman's lead to 56-49, and the Paladins would eventually grow that lead to as much as 19 points following a Devin Sibley made layup to make it an 80-61 with 4:03 remaining.
The story of the game for Furman was once again defense, posting 10 blocks, including a career-high seven swats from Matt Rafferty to lead the way on the defensive end for the Paladins. Rafferty also added three assists, three steals and three points in another solid effort from the freshman.
Croone finished the day connecting on 7-of-15 from the field, including going 4-of-10 from three point land and was an impressive 13-for-16 from the line, as the Paladins went 24-of-31 from the line on the day. The Paladins outscored the Bears by 11 from the charity stripe, as Mercer went 13-of-17 from the line. Croone added two blocks and a pair of steals to his closing act on the home floor.
Sibley was impressive once again, scoring 12 points and adding four assists, while Kris Acox just missed a double-double on 7-of-7 from the field to go with grabbing nine caroms. The Paladins improved to 12-0 when Acox finishes in double figures. Acox's toughness in the paint was once again a game-changer for the Paladins.
Jelks led Mercer with 17 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field and a perfect 6-for-6 from the line, while Strawberry added 15 and Cory Kilby finished with 13.
The Paladins finished the contest connecting on 47.3% (26-of-55) from the field, including going 33.3% (9-of-27) from three-point range.
Mercer, which finished connecting on 49.1% (28-of-57), after cooling off to 37.5% (12-of-32) in the second, thanks in large part to the Paladins turning up the pressure on the defensive end of the floor. The Bears shot just 33.3% (5-of-15) from the field.
Both teams had 33 boards in a matchup between the two top rebounding teams in the league. Furman held edges in assists (16-10), points-off-turnovers (15-0), bench points (34-26), second chance points (17-14) and fast break points (4-0). Mercer won the battle in the paint, out-scoring the Paladins 36-28.
The 85 points scored against the Bears are the second most scored against Mercer this season, and the most in regulation. Only Western Carolina's 86 points in doble-overtime win over the Bears eclipsed Furman's 85 from this afternoon's contest.
Furman has a week off before returning to the floor to face Wofford in Spartanburg next Saturday at 7 p.m., while Mercer returns to action looking to put an end to a three-game skid next Thursday looking for its first win over Western Carolina as a SoCon member. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. at Hawkins Arena.