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Furman dominates in win over Liberty

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Furman placed four players in double figures, led by Stephen Croone's 17 points, as the Paladins went on to post a 79-56 win over visiting Liberty in non-conference action Tuesday night at Timmons Arena.

The win marked the third-straight for the Paladins, who improved to 5-3 overall on the season, while Liberty dropped its sixth straight, falling to 3-7 on the young season.

Croone was part of a backcourt that contributed 51 of the Paladins‘ 79 points on the night, including 32 between both Croone and 2015 Southern Conference Freshman of the Year Devin Sibley, who posted 15 points.

"I think it starts in practice. We had a great week of practice and all the guys were dialed and we worked really hard. We knew what we had to do to get a win tonight, and I think we did that well. We knew that had a really good big man and in the first half he only had one field goal attempt, so we got some adrenaline off that and that carried over to the second half," said senior point guard Stephen Croone.

Despite shooting a season-best 60% from the field, it was the Paladin defense that played a major role in their second win over a Big South foe this season, as the Paladins were able to force 21 Liberty turnovers, posting a double-digit steals total (10 steals) for the third time this season, which helped lead to a decisive 22-5 margin in points-off-turnovers. The Paladins have hit double figures in steals in each of their last two games.

"I thought Stephen Croone played championship level defense and he set the tone. He's really grown as a guard. He's always been able to score and to slash, but the two ways he's really grown is on the defensive end and he's grown in his ability to read the play and in a lot of the pick-and-roll situations and some of the things we're doing, he's doing a great job and the game's slowing down for him a little bit. You know a lot of times he commits two to the ball on those pick-and-roll situations and he's doing a great job of reading it and seeing what's open and really making good decisions and that's what we're gonna need from him," said Furman head coach Niko Medved.

Liberty would get out of the gates fast, however, knocking down four shots of the game, including three from three-point range, running out to a 11-4 lead early. The Flames would eventually extend that lead to 16-7 with 11:29 remaining in the opening half. That would be the largest the lead would get all night for the Flames, as Furman exploded to post a 34-11 run midway through the game, spanning both halves to take control of the contest.

The Flames connected on five of their seven triples in the opening half, including each of their first four attempts in the contest. The start was very similar to Furman's first half performance last season in Lynchburg, which saw the Paladins connect on their first six threes of the game before going cold in the second half.

Keying the stretch run in the opening half was Sibley, who posted 13 of his 15 points in the opening frame, including going a perfect 9-for-9 in the opening half. Eleven of Sibley's 13 points in the opening half came in the final 10 minutes.

A beautifully designed pick-and-roll led to a Kris Acox layup to give Furman an eight-point lead on the opening possession of the second half, however, Liberty's A.C. Reid answered with a triple to trim it back to a 35-30 Furman lead.

From that point, Furman would turn on the intensity on both ends, scoring the game's next 12 points, including six points on a pair of Daniel Fowler three-pointers and a thunderous dunk from Acox, as Furman ran its lead to 17 points (47-30) at the first media timeout of the second half. The Paladins would follow that up with another 12-2 run, using a pair of Croone slams, as the lead increased to 25, which was part of a second half that saw the Paladins connect on a blistering 65.4% from the field.

The sequence to close the half and the opening five minutes of the second half proved to be the decisive stretch in the basketball, and the game was taken over by Furman, especially on the defensive end. The Paladins scored 14 of the second stanza's first 17 points, which was one of the Paladins' best spurts of the season, and it came at an opportune time, with much of the stretch being fueled by defensive intensity that led to highlight-reel plays and gave glimpse of just how potent the Paladins can be as a team defensively with their quickness and athleticism.

"We have a goals board in our locker room and all the guys are competitive about who has the most deflections on the team, so being active on defense, ball-pressure and like I said, they have a good post man so we knew if we were active on the ball and pressuring the ball, we knew it would be hard for them to get post touches," Croone added.

After going just 1-for-6 from three-point range in the opening half of play, Furman went 7-for-13 (53.8%) from long range in the second half, which was part of a 46-point half for the Paladins. The 60% shooting performance by the Paladins marks the third-straight game the Paladins have shot better than 50% from the field in a game.

Croone turned it up in the latter half of the game, scoring 10 of his team-leading 17 points in the second half of play. For the game, he knocked down 6-of-9 shots from the floor, including 1-for-3 from long range and was 4-for-8 from the charity stripe. As impressive as his offensive numbers were in the contest, it was Croone's play on the defensive end of the floor that helped ignite the Paladins, registering two of the team's 10 steals in the contest. Croone also had three of the team's 16 assists.

Sibley, who did most of his damage in the opening half of play, finished the night connecting on all three of his shots from the field and was 9-for-10 from the foul line.

In the paint, Acox and freshman Matt Rafferty continued to be impressive. Acox just missed a double-double, finishing with 13 points and nine boards, connecting on 6-of-8 shots from the field and 1-for-3 from the charity stripe.

Rafferty failed to score in double figures for the third-straight game, finishing with only five points, however, the freshman forward from Hinsdale, Ill., continues to impress, as he was the Paladins' leader in assists (6) and steals (4), while finishing second on the club in rebounding (7).

Senior forward Kendrec Ferrara finished as the final Paladin in double figures in the contest, posting an impressive 10 points off the bench in the win. Ferrara was an impressive 4-for-5 from the field and a perfect 2-of-2 from three-point land.

Guards John Davis III and Daniel Fowler finished out with eight and six points, respectively, including combining to connect on four of the team's eight triples in the contest.

As a team, Furman out-rebounded the Flames 27-25 and held a 38-22 advantage in points in the paint. The Paladins also out-scored Liberty in bench points (23-19) thanks in large part to Ferrara's 10 points as a reserve in the victory.

Liberty shot it at a 46.3% clip for the game, led by center and leading Evan Maxwell's 12 points, as he connected on 5-of-7 shots from the field. Reid added nine points, knocking down three of the Flames' seven three-point field goals in the contest, as Liberty connected on 36.8% of its shots from downtown in the contest.

Furman returns to action Saturday, when it hosts another Big South foe, as Gardner-Webb pays a visit to Timmons Arena for a 4 p.m. tip-off. The Flames return to Lynchburg to host Lamar in a 2 p.m. tip-off at the Vines Center on Saturday.