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Tough defense has helped Furman re-establish its identity

The Paladins are allowing just 59.8 PPG over the past eight games

NCAA Basketball: Furman at Villanova Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

GREENVILLE S.C. — Following Furman’s 59-54 loss at Wofford in mid-January, Terrier head coach Mike Young said something simple, yet profound.

“This is a good basketball team, believe me. Not one of the other three has had had to go to play at East Tennessee State, at UNC Greensboro, and had to come to us,” he said.

Furman head coach Bob Richey echoed that, following conference losses to UNCG, ETSU and Wofford on the road, urging his young team to not get down on itself.

You’ll find that good coaches in this profession can provide far greater perspective about the broader picture of a college basketball season than sometimes the hyper-focused, in-the-moment media can.

“I told our team that this team was going to turn in favor and that we just had to wait for it when people were starting to get down on us after a couple of losses,” Richey said.

Furman needed to make a statement Thursday night at Timmons Arena against a good opponent, just like it did Saturday against ETSU. And this time, it’d be against a UNC Greensboro team that had claimed four straight against the Paladins. The result: a 67-57 win.

“I think this group’s physicality and toughness has been questioned by a couple of people,” Richey said. “You don’t hold teams that are that good offensively under 60 without being physical and tough.”

Jordan Lyons and Matt Rafferty carried the offensive load for the Paladins in the first half, scoring 24 of the team’s 27 opening-half points, as the Paladins managed to take a 27-25 lead into the locker room.

“Coach Richey did a great job of telling us and getting it in our minds that anything that happened in the past is irrelevant and that we have to do is focus on tonight and focus on the task at hand,” junior guard Jordan Lyons said.

Clinging to just a two-point halftime lead, there was the feeling that at some point, the Paladins were going to have to weather a run by UNCG in the second half.

The Spartans showed their championship mettle with just over 12 minutes remaining and Furman holding on to a 36-34 lead. They went on an 8-0 run with a pair of three-pointers by Isaiah Miller, and a steal and a layup by Francis Alonso. Then a Richey timeout.

Furman’s planned response was simple: get Matt Rafferty touches.

“There were also four, five or six trips where Matt didn’t touch it. So in the timeout, it was, ‘take care of the basketball and make sure our big fella gets it.’ I think we did that from that point forward and played a much cleaner game,” Richey said.

Rafferty then connected on a left elbow triple, cutting the Spartans’ lead in half, at 42-39, with 11:25 left.

Back-to-back misses on a layup by Kyrin Galloway and a three-pointer led to four more Rafferty points off layups, and suddenly it was UNCG’s Wes Miller forced to take a timeout and Furman had a 43-42 lead with 9:52 remaining.

It was the turning point of the game as Furman never relinquished its lead.

Richey’s club has now reeled off five-straight, and is trending upwards. The Paladins are starting to capture some of that attention they lost in the mid-major and national sports media.

The Spartans, which had won eight-straight coming into Thursday’s clash, were facing their toughest portion of the conference slate with their upstate swing to face a pair of 20-win teams.

Add to that the defending champions, who are chasing SoCon unbeaten Wofford down the stretch for top spot in the SoCon, and there was a slight bit of pressure coming into games against red-hot Furman and Wofford.

Despite some uncharacteristic turnovers, which were forced by Furman’s stout defensive effort, the Spartans were able to keep the game in front of them at crucial times.

This game was far different than the ETSU last Saturday for the Paladins, which saw the Paladins shoot percentage drop from 64%, last Saturday in a win over ETSU to just 43.1% Thursday night. This was a grinder.

It was a physical war. UNCG had been 14-0 this when holding foes to less than 45 percent shooting from the field, but emerged 14-1. Meanwhile, Furman limited the Spartans to just 35.5 percent shooting from the floor.

The uptick for Furman on the defensive end has been noticeable over the past month. Over the past eight games, Furman is allowing just 59.8 point per game, holding all but one foe to fewer than 70 points in that span.

Furman’s defensive performance Thursday night could be summed up by the play of redshirt freshman forward Noah Gurley, who posted just seven points, but finished with a career-high five blocks and four boards.

Furman had just five players score in the contest. Gurley’s progression as a defender and shot-blocker has been noticeable.

“I’ve been trying to focus more on not fouling and just trying to let guys try and score over my length and I find that’s very effective and that’s one of the focuses that coaches have been working on with me lately,” Gurley said.

Miller, who had a career-high 25 points against the Paladins in the first meeting, was held scoreless in the opening half and finished with 16 points. Miller was one of four players in double figures in the loss. Furman’s defensive effort also limited Alonso, who averaged better than 17 PPG coming into the contest and scored just 10 Thursday night.

Following Saturday’s game vs. VMI slated for 4 p.m. at Timmons Arena, Furman will have a week off to prepare for its showdown with Wofford on Feb. 23., as the Paladins look to continue their payback tour against the other top three teams in the SoCon.

UNCG will head just up the road to face Wofford Saturday night for a 7 p.m. contest in Spartanburg. With UNCG’s loss to Furman coupled with Wofford’s 95-84 win over VMI, the Terriers have now opened up a two-game lead in the SoCon standings.