By Greg Peterson, Contributor
The Furman Paladins fended off University of North Carolina at Greensboro March 5 with an 80-64 score at the SoCon Championship quarterfinals. Sophomore guard Devin Sibley scored 20 points and SoCon Player of the Year Stephen Croone scored 20 points as well and to pass Jerry Smith for fifth on Furman’s all-time scoring list with 1,890 career points.
The Spartans scored the opening basket, and both teams would trade baskets for the first few minutes. After junior forward Chris Acox’s layup, the Paladins led 6-4 and would never lose the lead for the rest of the game.
The Paladins were in for a scare when Croone went up for a contested layup with 10:02 in the opening half after falling hard on his wrist. However, Croone would re-enter the game later in the half, and Furman would go into halftime leading 36-29.
The Paladins led by as many as 16, yet the Spartans would rally back to within six points with 7:36 left in the game. Furman put an end to the Spartan rally by sinking five of six free throws and making key defensive stops.
Overall, the Paladins made it count at the free throw line, making 22 of 30 from the line. Furman also outrebounded the Spartans 35 to 23 and shot 50 percent from the field compared to UNCG’s 42.9 percent from the field.
The Paladins would face the No. 2 seed ETSU March 6 in the SoCon semifinal game.
The East Tennessee State Buccaneers were just too much for the Paladins, as Furman lost 86-74.
Furman was led by Sibley in the semifinal, who matched his career-high 29 points. Acox added a double-double with 17 points and 11 boards.
The Paladins were down by as many as 15 points in the second half, but a 6-0 run with 4:52 left in the contest made it a six-point game. ETSU would then score seven straight points, making it a 13-point Buccaneer lead to put the game out of reach.
Furman was then selected to play in the CollegeInsiders.com Tournament and faced University of Louisiana Monroe in the opening round–a game that will be talked about for years.
In what was arguably the best game in Furman men’s basketball history, the Paladins won their first postseason game since 1974 and did it in the most exciting fashion.
With 2:08 left in the game, the Paladins were down 57-47. That is when the impossible happened. Sophomore guard Daniel Fowler knocked down a three-pointer and the ensuing ULM possession came up empty, giving the Paladins another chance to shorten the lead.
The Paladins charged down the court and chipped into the lead again, with a layup from Acox. Furman then went to a stifling press, and caused a ULM turnover that resulted in an easy layup by Croone. Furman continued its full-court press, which led to a Fowler steal and another Acox layup, making the game 57-56 with 45 seconds remaining.
After a missed shot by ULM, the Paladins had the ball, down 57-56 with 19 seconds remaining in the game. Croone brought the ball up the court to hold for the last shot. With five seconds left Croone charged down the lane for the winning points, but his shot bounced off the rim. But Fowler plucked the ball out of the air and shot, with time expiring as soon as the ball went through the net to give the Paladins a 58-57 victory.
The buzzer-beating finish was so phenomenal that even national sports media celebrated it. Furman’s winning shot was featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter the following day.
“It was such a cool experience. We knew it had a chance to be a historic night,” coach Niko Medved said. “Furman hadn’t won a postseason game in 42 years and we had a chance to set the all-time home win record. To win in the fashion we did was just awesome and I can’t think of a better way to end a historical night like that.”
However, the team’s season came to an end days later against Louisiana-Lafayette after suffering an 80-72 at Timmons Arena.
The Paladins were led by Croone who had 29 points, five boards and four assists, and finished his career as the number five scorer in Furman history with 1,936 points. Sibley had 15 points and Fowler scored 10 points.
The Paladins got off to a slow start, as the Ragin’ Cajuns scored the game’s first nine points. The Ragin’ Cajuns lead continued to grow due to several Paladin turnovers and cold shooting, making the game 27-9 with 9:27 left in the half.
The Paladins continued to fight despite the deficit, and Croone drained back-to-back three-pointers to bring the Paladins to within 12, making it 27-15 with 8:34 left in the half. Furman would reduce the deficit to single digits after Sibley’s layup made it 37-28, but the Ragin’ Cajuns would score two straight baskets before the intermission, resulting in a 41-28 Ragin’ Cajun halftime lead.
Louisiana-Lafayette kept its double-digit lead throughout the second half until Croone drained a three-pointer with 1:09 left in the game, making it 75-66. After a Ragin’ Cajun dunk, Croone connected on another three-pointer to make it an eight-point game, 77-69. The Paladins could never get any closer, as the Ragin’ Cajuns made clutch free throws in the closing seconds.
The Paladins finished their historic season with the most wins at home in a season (14). Croone was the first Furman Paladin since Chuck Vincent in 1998 to be named SoCon Player of the Year. Furman also finished with its fifth winning season since 1992, and was a perfect 9-0 at home against conference opponents.