After a 27-point loss to the Michigan Wolverines that served as a shock to everyone in and around the program, Saturday’s game against the Furman Paladins had the air of a prove-it game, even against a team that last year finished third in the Southern Conference. Despite the atmosphere in the building, Jay Wright and the program could not avoid dropping back-to-back games for the first time since 2012, and the Paladins emerged with the win, 76-68.
Despite the pregame furor in the Finneran Pavilion, the Wildcats got off to a sluggish start as they did against the Wolverines, and they fell behind the Paladins 8-2 early through buckets from Paladins sophomore forward Matt Rafferty(15 PTS, 17RBDS, 4 BLKS), freshman guard Jordan Lyons, who led the Paladins with 17 points, and sophomore forward Clay Mounce(15 PTS). This, naturally, is more concerning when not playing a rematch of last year’s national championship game. This sluggishness manifested itself on both ends of the floor: on offense. On offense, the Wildcats seemed at a loss for answers as how to even initiate or get the looks they need from Eric Paschall and Phil Booth. Glaringly, the two leaders of Wright’s team combined to shoot only 11-37 on the day. “We have to find ways just to get [Paschall] different looks,” Wright said. “We gotta get him in position to get to the foul line. He didn’t shoot any free throws. I thought we got him some good looks tonight, he just didn’t make ‘em.”
On defense, Furman tried to take advantage of Collin Gillespie(19 PTS) as Michigan did through constant switches, but after an initial rough stretch this weakness became slightly less glaring for the Wildcats. “I’ve definitely got to be better guarding on the ball,” Gillespie said. “I’m gambling a little too much.” Gillespie and the rest of the Wildcats’ defense were specifically aided by the immense presence of sophomore forward Dhamir Cosby- Roundtree(6 PTS, 11 RBDS, 5 ORBDS, 5 BLKS), the lone bright spot on the day who had three blocks, seven rebounds, and a steal in the first 20 minutes. And as Wright corralled his team defensively around the under-12:00 timeout, the offense came with it. From down 20-18, sophomore guard Collin Gillespie and Cosby-Roundtree fueled a run of ten straight with two made baskets each to give the Wildcats a lead at 28-20. Despite it looking more and more like the Wildcats’ redemption day, the Paladins’ Rafferty did everything he could to keep his team in the game, and he did so successfully with 9 points on 3-6 shooting, 9 boards, and a steal in the first half, successfully keeping his team within striking distance. The battle down low was the story of the first half, and Cosby-Roundtree and his Wildcats took the advantage into the locker room at the break, up 36-31.
Any progress the Wildcats offense made late in the first half crumbled at some point during the break, and the Paladins recovered the lead at the 16:36 mark on a Lyons jumper, 38-36. This turned out the first of six lead changes in quick succession as the Wildcats’ offense woke up but the defense naturally fell back asleep. “The defensive end is where we need to focus on the most, getting stops down the stretch,” Gillespie said. Lyons, who made headlines after scoring [fill] in a game earlier this week, played a huge part throughout the game in affecting the Wildcats’ defense. “We got overextended on him trying to take away his threes and he drove the ball,” Wright explained. “He made some big plays driving the ball. He’s a good player he’s not just a three-point shooter.”
The Wildcats took the last of these leads through a triple by senior forward Eric Paschall(8 PTS), and took the lead into the under-12:00 timeout, 46-44. The Paladins came back at them again, however, through a jumper from sophomore guard Alex Hunter and a Rafferty layup to tie the game again at the 9:35 mark at 46. Things only got worse for Wright’s squad from there, as after briefly wresting the lead back once again through a dunk and triple from senior guard Phil Booth, the Paladins returned fire once again with 7 straight points to make the score 55-51.
The crowd erupted like at no point before then when Booth tied the contest at 58 on a fade away jumper with 2:42 remaining, and for the first time since the half there was palpable confidence in the Finn. It only got louder as Gillespie put in a tough transition finish in transition to give the ‘Cats their first lead in over five minutes. But the Paladins were relentless, tying the game again through two Lyons free throws after Gillespie was called for a blocking foul. Suddenly, so soon after you could barely hear your own thoughts, all hope seemed lost in an instant and there was a sense of shock in the Finn when senior guard Joe Cremo(9 PTS, 2 STLS) was called for an off the ball foul as it appeared the ‘Cats had secured an overtime. However, with a chance to win the game at the line for one-and-one free throws Rafferty’s first attempt rimmed out into the hands of Cremo, and Wright called for a timeout with 2.3 seconds left for one final chance to win the game before overtime. Cremo’s original heaved attempt to Paschall from his own baseline was tipped out of bounds by Rafferty, and the ensuing play with just over a second left went nowhere.
Overtime started with Cremo, who became busier and busier as the game went on, securing a tip originally won by the Paladins, but the ‘Cats could get nothing out of a pair of looks from Paschall on the opening possession. The Paladins proceeded to take the first and only lead of the extra period through freshman forward Noah Gurley(13 PTS, 8 RBDS, 4 ASTS). Booth briefly took the lead for the ‘Cats on a triple assisted by Cremo, but it was shortlived as the Paladins took control 67-63 through Mounce and Lyons. “Down the stretch in a one point game they really exploited our mismatches,” Wright admitted.
A garbage time Cremo three was all the ‘Cats could manage from that point on as a significant amount of the attempts to get back in the game were ill-advised looks from Booth or Paschall. All that was left was to shepherd the lead through the obligatory process of fouls, free throws, and repeat; once that was done and the buzzer sounded, the Paladins rushed the court.