In case you missed it, Saturday was a slightly big day for Southern Conference hoops, with each of the projected top four teams — Furman, East Tennessee State, UNC Greensboro and Wofford — facing off against each other.
Here’s what we learned.
Furman is not a one-man show
We all know what Jordan Lyons can do, as he showed with his 40-point effort against VMI to kick off SoCon play. But against East Tennessee State (13-3, 2-1 SoCon), itthat the Paladins are much more than just Jordan Lyons.
Lyons did lead the Paladins with 14 points, and his timely threes in transition almost always seemed like daggers. Enter sophomore forward Jalen Slawson and junior guard Tre’ Clark.
On Saturday, Slawson and Clark that gave the business to the the league favorite Bucs. They were the real MVPs for the Paladins in the win over ETSU.
Three moments stick out vividly in the game that were pivotal in Furman’s 65-56 win over the Bucs, and both players were at the heart of those respective plays.
The first came with over three minutes left and Furman leading 58-49. Slawson chased down ETSU all-conference guard Bo Hodges and blocked Hodges’ layup attempt emphatically off the glass, with the ball caroming off right into the waiting hands of guard Mike Bothwell, who then took a look down the floor and found a wide-open Lyons at the right elbow. Lyons collected himself and splashed home his fourth triple of the night.
The energy created by that one play Saturday was palpable, and it was the kind of play that summed up the day for Bob Richey’s Paladins. ETSU came to play, there’s no doubt about that. Defensively, the Bucs had the Paladins on lockdown for much of the first 10 minutes, however, Furman hung around by playing good defense of its own.
Slawson was involved in a couple of other energy plays in the game: one of which involved him diving for a loose ball late in the opening half, while the other was a crucial three-pointer when Furman struggled to score ETSU nearly led by double-figures.
Slawson was the one player ETSU was deciding to leave open in the first half, primarily because coming into the game, he shot 45.0% from the field and just 22.2% from three-point range. The Bucs had to pick their poison; their choice was letting Slawson beat them.
With just under nine minutes to play in the half, Slawson hit what was one of the more crucial shots of the game for the Paladins, as he pulled up from the top of the key for a three that sliced ETSU’s lead to 16-14. That sparked a 10-2 run over the next four-and-a-half minutes.
Furman never trailed again.
“Slawson [is] definitely a game-changer for us,” Furman Head coach Bob Richey said. “When you play with belief and you go out there and you believe in yourself, you change how you play. And you have to earn the right to play well. The deal with Slawson is he’s earned the right to play well — and it’s just not like this happened accidentally. At the timeout, I told him, ‘They are playing off of you. Shoot it. You’ve earned that.’”
Slawson scored eight points, blocked three shots, dished out a pair of assists and collected four rebounds. Clark scored 10 points, including two emphatic dunks in the second half that pumped energy into the Timmons Arena faithful, to go along with two steals and seven boards.
Wofford is still really good
Those who were ready to discount Wofford (9-6, 1-1 SoCon) just because Fletcher Magee, Cameron Jackson, Keve Aluma and head coach Mike Young had moved on, shame on you.
If the Jay McAuley-led Terriers have shown us anything this week, it’s that not only can they compete with the top teams in the SoCon, they can beat them.
Saturday night’s 98-92 double-overtime win over UNC Greensboro was a classic, and it was one that saw McAuley’s Terriers face and overcome adversity.
The Terriers lost both point guard Storm Murphy and and forward Trevor Stumpe, as Stumpe fouled out with nine minutes left, and Murphy fouled out of the contest with 2:10 remaining in the first overtime. The biggest adversity they overcame, however, might have been blowing a 13-point lead with 3:48 left, yet still winning.
With all that facing it, and having SoCon pre-season Player of the Year Isaiah Miller on the other side, it would have been easy to see a young Wofford team wilt under pressure.
However, winning big games last March taught the younger players like Storm Murphy and backup point guard Ryan Larson how to win.
Larson was asked to match up against Miller, who was coming off a school-record nine steal outing against Mercer. Yet Larson seemed unfazed. Saturday was a career-high effort for Larson, who scored 12 points and was one of six Terriers in double figures.
Nathan Hoover and Murphy scored 17 apiece in the Terriers’ fourth-straight win over UNCG.
Saturday’s results set up a crucial early matchup Wednesday night
With UNCG and East Tennessee State both losing this weekend, Wednesday night’s matchup between the top two preseason teams becomes a critical game for either team. A second-straight loss could jeopardize that order of finish for one of these two.
For UNCG, they have had plenty of success against ETSU in this matchup of late — much like Wofford has had against UNCG, as the Spartans have won three-straight over the Bucs. Last year, their games were decided by a combined eight points.
Despite being the league favorites, the Bucs have had arguably the toughest slate begin league play: hosting Wofford, then back-to-back road games at Furman and UNCG.
One thing is for sure, ETSU has to find its shooting touch before Wednesday.
Over the past two games, the Bucs are shooting 40% (30-of-75) from the field — including on 21.3% (10-of-47) from three-point range — and averaging 52.5 PPG. Prior to the first week of the New Year, the Bucs led the SoCon in field goal percentage (49.0%), ranked fourth in three-point field goal percentage (37.1%) and second in scoring offense (81.4 PPG).
Could this matchup shape the course of the remainder of conference play? Only time will tell.