Dylan Smith posted 20 points, including what proved to be the game-winning jumper from the left elbow with 1.5 seconds remaining, as UNC Asheville claimed a narrow, 67-65, victory over Furman in the final non-conference game for both clubs on Tuesday night at Kimmel Arena.
The win sees Asheville improve to 8-5 overall, while Furman drops to 6-7 overall, as both head into key conference battles. Tuesdaynight's battle was between a pair of teams with bright futures ahead. For the Bulldogs, it's a bit ahead of schedule, as the preseason No. 7 pick in the Big South are playing like conference favorites through their first 13 games, and certainly not a club that places much of its scoring emphasis upon the shoulders of a pair of freshmen and a sophomore.
Like the Asheville club this season, Furman's young ball club was taken for granted by many last year entering the Southern Conference Tournament in Asheville, entering the contest as the bottom seed in the SoCon before making a remarkable run to the title game, riding on the crest of momentum created by the play of three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior in the starting lineup last season.
A year later and with more pressure as a result of that run, high expectations have greeted the Paladins entering the 2015-16 season, and through the first 13 games of the campaign, the Paladins have performed a little below expectations, but there's no doubting the talent of this team.
Like the Furman team of last season, which found its chemistry in the late going, Asheville has taken some of the preseason low expectations at the the Big South Preseason Media Day and used them as fuel for the fire going into conference play, despite being the youngest team in the league this season after losing six of their top 10 scorers from a year ago.
"We have used it a bit as motivation this year and kind of played with a bit of a chip on our shoulder. But I think the biggest thing is we just enjoy getting to play together each night, and we still have a lot to improve on heading into conference play, "said Asheville sophomore guard Kevin Vannatta.
Vannatta was sensational shooting the basketball the Bulldogs all night, as he had a near flawless performance, posting a game-high 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the field, including 3-for-4 from three-point land. Vannatta also added a team-best seven rebounds in the win. The 21 points were a career-high, eclipsing his previous career-best total of 20 points in a 90-81 loss at Western Carolina earlier this season.
Smith finished the night going 7-of-12 from the field and 4-of-8 from three-point land. He went 2-for-2 from the line and added five boards, a steal and an assist to the cause for Asheville.
Asheville head coach Nick McDevitt already has a lot invested in his program, and for four years as a player, he and assistant Brett Carey learned from one of the best teachers the mid-major level had to offer--Eddie Biedenbach. Biedenbach, a disciple of the late Dean Smith, groomed McDevitt and Carey well, and the two former Bulldog players have seemingly fashioned a team to be reckoned with in the Big South, despite what any preseason prognosticators might say.
In fact, it would be shocking not to see Asheville in some postseason non-conference basketball tournament come mid-March. While the Bulldogs might not have scoring machine sharp-shooter Andrew Rowsey this season, after the rising junior transferred to Marquette, the sum of their parts this season might be a better overall product than the club that finished 15-16 a year ago.
"I am pleased with how we have rebounded the ball so far this season, and that's one thing we are doing really well right now, despite not being a very big basketball team. We're gonna see a lot of teams like Furman in the Big South and it's going to be a lot of type games like this against good teams like Furman, so the game tonight was a good game to get us prepared for our trip to Virginia to open conference play this weekend," said Asheville head coach Nick McDevitt.
McDevitt has the fortune of having some pretty solid young contributors that will shoulder much of the load throughout the season, with Smith being one of the most notable to show up in the boxscore coming off the bench throughout the campaign. Having a player mature quickly is something the third-year head coach will need if he hopes to enjoy the continued success the Bulldogs enjoyed during their non-league portion of the slate.
"Having a guy like Dylan Smith step up like he did tonight is great and the biggest thing about him as a player is that he plays with a tremendous amount of confidence and it was good to see that tonight," McDevitt said.
In the starting five between the two teams in Tuesday night's clash, there were just two seniors combined in the original starting five for both clubs, as Furman's Stephen Croone and UNCA's Sam Hughes accounted for the lone fourth-year players on two very young basketball teams, with each under two third-year head coaches.
The Paladins, which captivated the casual fan in Asheville last year with its run to the Southern Conference title game, it showed glimpses of that grit and determination that made the Paladins such a tough out in the Altitude City last March.
The Paladins, which trailed 30-24 at the halftime break, would start to chip away at the Asheville advantage early in the second half, and the Paladins would take a one-point lead following a Kris Acox layup at the 17:24 mark of the opening half, as the Paladins responded with a quick flurry to open the second half.
The 7-0 to start the second half would give Furman a brief 31-30 lead before the Smith responded with one of his four three-pointers on the night to put Asheville back in front, 33-31, at the 17:18 mark . Smith finished the night going 7-for-12 from the field and 4-of-8 from three-point range.
Smith, a 6-5 freshman from Mobile, AL, is a player that has shown confidence throughout the season, and his shot to beat the Paladins was a wrong he had been looking to right since the 86-81 loss to Elon.
"I've always played with a lot of confidence, and in high school, I made a lot of big shots like this one tonight. I had a similar chance in the Elon game last time out and we lost, so tonight, I knew if I got a chance again, I wanted to make sure I made the most of the opportunity. I am confident in those type situations, and to do it against a good team like Furman, makes me even more confident. It was fun out there. I enjoy being out there and playing against a great player like [Stephen] Croone.That's what college basketball is all about," Smith said.
While the Bulldogs led by as many as 10 points in the contest in the opening half of play, Asheville would not see its lead eclipse the seven-point plateau in the second half.
Though it was a game that was influenced for the most part by Asheville's underclassmen, one of the biggest momentum changing moments in the contest was provided by the lone senior to log major minutes in the contest for the Bulldogs.
With the score knotted, 45-45, center Sam Hughes came up with a layup on one end, which allowed the Bulldogs to take a two point lead, and then following steal by Furman's Acox, it looked as though the Paladins were going to get an easy layup. However, Acox's layup was batted off the backboard by Hughes so emphatically that the ball naturally led guard Kevin Vannatta into an automatic break the other way and an eventual four-point spurt following the Vannatta layup at the 10:12 mark.
After a pair of John Davis III foul shots saw the Paladins pull within two, the Bulldogs would extend their lead out to their largest of the second half following a triple from Smith and a layup by Ahmad Thomas, who was fouled on the play, but could not convert the old-fashioned three-point play, as he missed the charity shot, keeping Asheville's lead at seven, 54-47, with 9:12 left.
The sequence, which was created by the Hughes lay-up and huge rejection, would ultimately lead to a Furman timeout, as the Kimmel Arena post-Christmas crowd was whipped into a frenzy. Asheville's spurt came following a Devin Sibley layup, which had allowed Furman to take a 43-42 lead with 12:52 to play, the Bulldogs would go on a 12-4 run over the 3:40 to take the seven point lead and prompt a Paladin timeout with just over nine to play.
At that point, it would have not been a surprise to see Furman fade the way it had in games against Dayton and Charlotte earlier this season, but to its credit, Niko Medved's club kept coming at the same Asheville club that had taken down college basketball giant Georgetown (79-73) and Southern Conference member East Tennessee State (84-64) by 20 earlier this season. The Bulldogs had also taken Tennessee to the wire before eventually losing by four in Knoxville (82-78) in the season opener.
However, it's at those moments in the game when it seemed the Paladins played their best basketball, and following an 9-2 run, with the final three points in the spurt coming on a Croone foul shot and made jumper from the free throw line after an Acox rebound following a miss from the Paladins' leading scorer on his second shot of a two-shot foul. Croone's jumper helped the Paladins take a 63-62 lead with 43 seconds remaining, setting up some high drama down the stretch at Kimmel Arena.
Following Croone's jumper, Smith would quickly come down and put up a three, which had little arc, but the line-drive triple hit nothing but the bottom of the net, and the Bulldogs had regained a two-point lead, at 65-63, with Smith's triple.
Croone would be fouled going to the basket on the ensuing possession, and he went to the line 21 seconds left for two. He knocked down both shots to tie the game, 65-65. That would set the stage for Smith on the ensuing possession, as he took the ball at the top of the key, guarded by Croone, and as the clock wound down, he would take the shot with 1.5 seconds remaining from the top of the key to ultimately deliver the win for the Bulldogs.
The opening half of play would see Furman run out to a quick 8-0 lead, which all came off Asheville turnovers. Croone was score on a long three and then a three by Matt Rafferty and another layup of another up-and-under led to the early 8-0 lead for the Paladins.
Asheville responded with a 14-2 run over the next two-and-a-half minutes, with the only Furman bucket in the stretch coming on a dunk by Acox. The Bulldogs connected on 44.4% in the opening half, while holding the Paladins to 32.2% in the opening frame, taking a 30-24 to the break.
Towards the end of the half, Sibley came up big for the Paladins, scoring the final four points for the Paladins. Following being fouled on a three-pointer, Sibley connected on just 1-of-3 free throws, but on the third, got his own rebound, converted a layup and was fouled on the attempt. After converting a three-point play the old-fashioned way, Sibley had trimmed four points off the Paladin deficit in a matter of four seconds, allowing the Paladins to trail by only six at the break.
The Paladins would end up taking an early 31-30 lead after scoring the opening seven points of the second half, and coupled with Sibley's final four points of the opening half, the Paladins had an 11-0 run spanning the end of the opening half and the start of the second half.
For Furman, Croone and Sibley spearheaded a solid night for the Paladin backcourt, as both senior and sophomore scored 16 points apiece to lead the Paladins. Croone finished the night connecting on 6-of-11 shots from the field, including 1-of-3 from three-point land, and was 3-for-4 from the free throw line.
Sibley finished the night connecting on 4-of-8 from the field, including 2-for-6 from three-point land.The sophomore guard finished 6-for-11 from the line.
Rafferty rounded out the Paladins in double figures, posting 12 points on 5-of-10 from the field and 2-for-4 from three-point range. It was the seventh time in 13 games to start his collegiate career to finish in double figures for the freshman from Hinsdale, Ill. Rafferty also added seven boards to lead the Paladins. Acox narrowly missed double figures, posting nine points on 4-of-10 shooting from the field and 1-of-4 from the line.
Vannatta and Smith were joined in double figures by Ahmad Thomas, who posted 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting from the field 5-of-8 from the field and 1-of-1 at the charity stripe. He also added five boards.
Furman was again strong on the glass, posting a 37-34 edge on the boards, including converting 12 offensive rebounds into an 11-1 advantage in second-chance points. The Bulldogs connected on a solid 49.1% (26-of-53) from the field in the game, while Furman connected on 23-of-54 shots from the field for a 42.6% shooting clip for the game. The Paladins were just 6-for-22 (27.3%) from three-point land, while the Bulldogs were 7-of-17 (41.2%) from long range in the game.
The Paladins turned the ball over 17 times, while forcing the Bulldogs into 14 miscues. The Paladins held a narrow advantage (18-14) in points off turnovers, while Asheville posted a slight edge in bench points (25-21). The Paladins out-scored the Bulldogs 34-26 in the paint.
Furman opens Southern Conference play Saturday, hosting VMI with a 4 p.m. tip-off at Timmons Arena, while Asheville opens Big South play with a game Thursday night at Longwood, with tip-off in Farmville set for 2 p.m.