For the second-straight game, Furman flexed its muscles on the defensive end, and made a team with a double-digit win total look like human, as five players scored in double figure en route to Furman claiming its third win in his last four Southern Conference games, with a 77-57 win over Samford.
The Paladins held the Bulldogs to just 40.8% shooting from the field for the game, including just 30.4% in the opening half, and for a second-consecutive game, weathered relentless backcourt pressure from an opponent all evening, attacking it with a relentlessness from of trio of talented ball-handlers.
The Furman team that began to emerge last Match as the No. 10 seed in the Southern Conference Tournament is now looking like a very viable threat to be one of the top six seeds for the league's annual postseason tournament this March. It was once a testament to how some of the great Southern Conference champions of yesteryear claimed titles.
I distinctly remember College of Charleston's 1998-99 team as being one of the best defensive teams I had ever seen play in the Southern Conference. With players like Shane McCravy, Jermel President and Seddric Webber just to name a few, the Cougars were dominant and only had to be average on the offensive end of the floor.
What has been on display in three conference games at Timmons Arena has been about the Niko Medved brand of basketball. Much in the same way that Clemson rallied around its likeable football coach Dabo Swinney to all season to reach the national title game before falling in heartbreaking fashion, 45-40, to the Alabama Crimson Tide last night, Furman is rallying as one team around Medved much in the same fashion it did last March now that conference play has commenced.
Including Monday night's win over Samford, the Paladins have now knocked off a pair of foes that had a combined 21 wins to only nine losses. The Paladins put on a show in all three of their recent Southern Conference home games at Timmons Arena, finding their shooting touch as well as using stout defense to lead to easy offense on the other end.
Not since the 2011 season have the Paladins reached 70 or more points in three-straight home games against league foes. In fact, in six of its eight home games this season, the Paladins have scored 70 or more points to delight the home folks, and no home win has come by less than double digits this season. Of special note is the atmosphere, which is beginning to change with Paladin basketball. The only time the Paladins failed to do that were in the season-opening, 63-53, win over Presbyterian to open the campaign and the only loss on the floor--a 73-53 thumping by Gardner-Webb.
On Saturday afternoon in an early-season paramount SoCon clash with league favorite Chattanooga, a new element of hostility to opposing teams was introduced--the Paladin lacrosse team, which was also joined by some baseball players. Many of the students are still returning this week from the Holiday Break, but with lacrosse and baseball in-season, it was the type of atmosphere that these Paladin players have seemingly longed for since that run last March.
It was evident the effect the Paladins' new biggest supporters were having. First, in Saturday's win over Chattanooga--maybe the biggest in the history of the on-campus facility, the team was instructed by its coach that if they could hold the Mocs below their season averages for points (77.7) and free throw shooting, they would be able to forfeit their running on Sunday. The negotiation worked, as the rowdy, in-your-face bravado of about 35 guys altered the atmosphere and they easily held the Mocs below their outstanding offensive averages, as they would be granted a day of rest.
Against Samford, it even was enough to engage former Kentucky Wildcats standout and national champion Scott Padgett, who is now the head coach at Samford, reminding the lacrosse players that he was a star player at Kentucky sometime ago. The drama of the game had long ceased, apparently even for the former national championship-winning Wildcat forward. Padgett's point was to try and distract the players from disturbing his free throw shooters at the line, which in a way, gave props to just how difficult this rowdy group has made life for foes in each of the past two games.
The lacrosse team had even managed to rattle the coach of Samford. Following what was a 20-point win over a team that had entered league play with a win over Big 10 Nebraska (9-8), likely an NIT team. Ironically, it was a Nebraska team coached by Tim Miles--a coach that Medved considered one of his biggest mentors while on staff at Colorado State.
In games against Chattanooga and Samford in the past two outings, the atmosphere has been different and outstanding. The Paladins are starting to gather momentum, and it was just a couple of weeks ago in games on the road against Navy and Dayton that the Paladins looked lost. Things finally started to come together in a heartbreaking, 67-65, loss at UNC Asheville. The past two road losses have been by a combined three points.
The Paladins might be on the brink of doing something really special, but Medved and his staff remain optimistic, but know much still must be done.
In Thursday night's win, the Paladins were never really challenged, and the Talladega press employed to speed up the game only backfired. The Paladins had five finish in double figures, led by Geoff Beans--a player who went for 21 points a year ago in a win over the Bulldogs at Timmons Arena--and it was Beans putting on a shooting display once again this season, connecting on 5-of-6 shots from the field, and 4-for-5 from three-point range in the win.
Beans finished 1-for-2 from the free throw line to complete his 16-point performance. The 16 points were a season-high for the sophomore from Toledo, OH. Beans also dished out a pair of assists and grabbed five boards. Eleven of Beans' 16 points came in the opening half of play. Beans' play off the bench was significant because it helped the Paladins amass a 38-23 disparity in bench points by the time the final buzzer sounded.
Joining Beans' prolific shooting was Acworth, GA native Daniel Fowler, who finished the contest by contributing 12 points on 4-for-4 shooting from the field, including 3-of-3 from three-point land and was 1-of-2 from the free throw line. The 12 points by Fowler in the contest, which all came in the first half, were just one off tying his career-high.
Fowler and Beans went on to score 23 of their 28 combined points in the opening half of play, which helped Furman open up a huge 45-22 lead at the break. Furman shot the basetball at a blistering 50% (14-of-28) in the opening frame, while limiting Samford to just 30.4% (7-of-23). The performances by Fowler and Beans in the opening half helped off-set what was a tough half for Croone, who finished with just one point in the opening half of play. Croone would go on to be one of three players to finish out the contest with 11 points for Furman, joined by Kendrec Ferrara and Devin Sibley, who also posted 11 points.
Ferrara, a senior from Cape Coral, FL, has come up huge in the past couple of games for the Paladins, and added three more blocks to the six he had against Chattanooga, as the Paladins have blocked 12 shots in the past two games. Prior to the Chattanooga game, the Paladins had just 25 blocks for the season. Furman had nearly had half their season's total in blocks in two games, thanks in large part to Ferrara. In conference games along this season, Furman has registered 16 of its season total of 37 blocks in four league games, averaging 4.0 blocks-per-game in SoCon games.
Ferrara's 11 points came on 3-of-6 shooting from the field and 5-of-6 from the charity stripe. The Sunshine State native also added three boards and a pair of assists.
Sibley also came off the bench to add 11 points, marking his second-straight game in double figures, as he continues to play well for the Paladins.
Dating back to last season's game against Western Carolina, the Paladins have won four out of their last five against SoCon opponents at Timmons Arena, and with the tournament included and the four SoCon games to start the current calendar year, the Paladins have defeated seven of their last nine Southern Conference opponents--home or away--losing to Wofford twice at home and in the SoCon title last season, and dropped a 67-66 decision to UNCG this season.
Samford, which outscored Furman in the paint (30-24) and had a narrow edge in points off turnovers (17-13) created by their press, could only force the Paladins into four miscues in the opening half of play, despite such defensive tenacity. The Paladins ended with 16 turnovers, but many of those came in the second half when the game had been decided.
The Bulldogs did not place a player in double figures, with Christen Cunningham leading the way with nine points, three assists and two steals, while a quartet of players completed the contest with eight points, with Iman Johnson turning in the best all-around performance with eight points, four rebounds, three assists and a steal.
Furman (9-8, 3-1 SoCon) returns to action to face another stern test on Thursday night with a trip to Mercer (13-4, 3-1 SoCon), who are unbeaten at home this season,with tip-off on ESPN3 set for 4 p.m. from Hawkins Arena. Meanwhile, Samford (10-6, 1-3) will look to end its swoon of late, returning to the Pete Hanna Center to face the league's lone unbeaten East Tennessee State (10-6, 3-0). Tip-off for that contest is set for 8 p.m. EST and will be an ESPN3 production.
Notes On The Paladins Trend Upwards
Furman's nine wins now matches its highest regular-season win total under Medved in his three seasons at the helm, which was previously established in 2013-14.
A 10th win for the Paladins would be its most in a regular-season since the 2011-12 season, when the Paladins posted 14 regular-season wins.
Furman's 9-8 through 17 games is its best start to a season since the 2010-11 team started the campaign with a 12-5 record through its first 17 games. The 3-1 start in league play also marks the best start in SoCon play since that 2010-11 squad.
Head coach Niko Medved improved to 29-51 in his career as the Paladins' head basketball coach in three seasons. However, dating back to the final two regular-season games last season and including the Southern Conference Tournament, he is 13-10 in his last 23 games at the helm. Prior to past 23 games as head coach, Medved had won just 16 games in 57 outings.
Excluding last year's Southern Conference Tournament, Furman has not won three out of four games against SoCon foes in any stretch during the Medved era, and had won only eight regular-season SoCon games in the previous two seasons combined prior to 2015-16. In Medved's first two seasons, the Paladins 8-26 against SoCon foes in the regular-season. He has nearly won half his career total in two seasons entering the campaign in just four of 18 Southern Conference games slated for the 2015-16 season. Including last season's final two regular-season games, Southern Conference Tournament and the first four SoCon games of 2015-16, Medved has posted wins in seven of his past nine SoCon games.