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A giant step in the right direction

The Furman men’s basketball team’s regular season came to an end March 6 with an 84-76 loss to East Tennessee State in the semifinals of the Southern Conference Tournament at the U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville, N.C., but the program’s march toward a return to relevance continues.

A sizeable contingent of Paladin fans watched third-seeded Furman end UNC-Greensboro’s five-game win streak with an impressive 80-64 drubbing of the Spartans on Saturday night, but ETSU’s hot shooting doomed coach Niko Medved’s squad in the semifinals.

“If somebody had told me we would only turn it over five times and out rebound them and have 40 points in the paint, I would have liked our chances,” Medved said. “Clearly our defense wasn’t what it needed to be, but you’ve got to give them some credit too: They made some shots.”

The accuracy difference was striking: The second-seeded Buccaneers hit 8 of 15 3-pointers while the Paladins missed 16 of their 20 attempts. Furman also missed nine free throws, while ETSU (23-10) connected on 24 of 27 (89 percent).

“Sometimes we try to dig deeper, but sometimes it’s really about as simple as that: They made a bunch of shots and we didn’t,” Medved said.

Enough people bought tickets from The Paladin Club to fill a section of the arena behind the Furman bench with purple, and before and after both games fans gathered at the Twisted Laurel in downtown Asheville. The team was greeted by dozens of fans and a pep rally as it left the Renaissance Hotel before both contests as part of activities organized by the Club.

Dwight Covington, Furman’s director of athletic ticket sales, said the school sold all of its allotment of tournament tickets for the first time in his 10 years on the job, continuing a trend of increasing optimism and interest from long-suffering hoops fans who haven’t seen a conference title since 1991 or an NCAA tournament since 1980. Neither of those things changed this season, but several others moved in a positive direction to build on the momentum of a surprise trip to the tournament championship game in 2015.

The 18 victories is a total that has been topped only twice in the past 26 years, and the 18-15 final record represented Furman’s second winning campaign in a decade. More importantly, Medved, who somehow wasn’t named the SoCon Coach of the Year, returns a nucleus of talented players in 2016-17.

“Really the end of last season and in particular this season we really saw a rejuvenation, kind of a program brought back to life from the fan base and the support,” Medved said. “And that’s what this team and this season will be remembered for, and that’s huge. That’s really hard to do when it’s been the way that it’s been for a long time, and these kids deserve a lot of credit for that. It has been fun. I’m seeing the energy and the enthusiasm, and people have been so positive this year about the team and the team moving forward. We’re going to continue to build this program.”

Furman’s road against ETSU got a lot bumpier with the struggles of leading scorer Stephen Croone ’16, who didn’t hit his first basket until well into the second half and finished with nine points to end a streak of 21 consecutive games scoring in double figures. Before the tournament, Croone became Furman’s first SoCon Player of the Year since Chuck Vincent ’98 in 1998, and the senior finishes an outstanding career fifth in school history in points with 1,899, tied for fifth with Robbie Bostain ’07 in steals with 176, and seventh in assists with 378.

“It just wasn’t his night,” Medved said.

Croone’s graduation leaves a big hole at point guard next season, and Medved will miss the depth provided by fellow seniors and key reserves Larry Wideman ’16 and Kendrec Ferrera ’16. More importantly, the three stuck around long enough to form a nucleus for a program that had been gutted by transfers, and they helped the team’s win totals improve every year of their careers, from seven to nine to 11 to 18.

“We’re going to miss those seniors, not just for their play on the court but for the kind of people they are,” Medved said. “You can replace points and rebounds and assists and blocks, but what you can’t do is replace the people and what they’ve done to help change the culture of your program.”

That change is evident in the talent Medved has been able to recruit that will return in 2016-17. Shooting guard Devin Sibley ’18, the 2014-15 conference Freshman of the Year, matched his career high with 29 points against ETSU, while forward Kris Acox ’17 further established himself as one of the league’s most athletic inside players with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Matt Rafferty ’19 led the Paladins in rebounding as a freshman to make the SoCon all-freshman team.

Next year they’ll be joined by talented post player Jalen Williams ’20 from Wade Hampton High in Greenville, a 6-8, 245-pounder who red-shirted this season, and 5-10 guard Jordan Lyons out of Atlanta, who is averaging 19.3 points per game for a 29-3 team.

“I’m really excited about the guys we’ve got coming back, and the young players we have in our program,” Medved said. “There’s a belief that we can win and that we can be good. That’s the stuff that’s hard to change, but I think has changed.”

The Furman women defeated ETSU 71-68 in the first round of the SoCon tournament on Thursday in Asheville before losing 64-50 top-seeded Mercer on Friday. Furman, the fifth seed, finished with a 15-16 record.

Holly Wilkins ’16 scored 18 points in her final game for the Paladins to finish a stellar career with 1,520 points, good for fifth in school history. Learn more about Furman men’s and women’s basketball.

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