By: Sammy Clough, Sports Editor
The Furman men’s basketball team is undefeated and boasts the best start in school history. They’ve beaten half of last year’s Final Four teams, have been on Sportscenter three times and played a game in which multiple NCAA records were broken. And they’re just getting started. But this leads one to ask: how did we get here?
Last year’s 2017-2018 team finished the regular season with a school record 22 wins. Led by one of Furman’s greatest senior classes, the Paladins’ four seniors accounted for 65 wins during their careers in purple. Headlined by 2016 Southern Conference Player of the Year, Devin Sibley, the strong senior class included point guard John Davis III, Daniel Fowler and Geoff Beans. The Paladins relied on these seniors, and they came up big in the biggest moments of the season. Losing four of Furman’s most important players to graduation, the Paladins were left with questions entering this season.
Second year head coach Bob Richey knew he would have a few players he could rely on, but needed some of the young and inexperienced players to step up if the Paladins were to improve on their record setting year from the previous season. Senior Matt Rafferty quickly became the catalyst for the young Paladins, as one of just two seniors on the team.
Rafferty, a native of Hinsdale, Ill., helped lead Furman to its first statement win of the 2018 campaign in front of his family and friends in Chicago. A 60-58 win over Loyola-Chicago, the Cinderella of last year’s tournament, put Furman on the national media’s radar.
The Paladins returned home to defeat Gardner-Webb in an overtime game in which redshirt sophomore Clay Mounce scored a career high 26 points. Furman would play one more game against cross-town opponent North Greenville before traveling to Philadelphia to face the defending national champion Villanova Wildcats. In what was expected to be not too flashy of a win against NGU, junior Jordan Lyons decided he had other ideas.
“I made my first three shots,” said Lyons, “and that’s a great feeling for a shooter.” Lyons went on to make 15 three pointers, tying the NCAA record for threes made in a game. He totaled 54 points in the game, the first time a Furman player broke 50 since Dick Esleek in 1969.
Two days later, the Paladins traveled north to face Villanova, ranked eighth in the nation at the time. Led by Lyons’ 17 points, and Rafferty’s 15 points and 17 rebounds, Furman shocked the national champions in overtime, winning 76-68. This win garnered attention across the world of sports media, and gave Furman credibility as a legitimate basketball program. “It was good to see our work get noticed,” Lyons said of their increasing media attention. The Paladins returned home to Timmons Arena to a welcoming crowd of Furman fans, cheering them on as they stepped off the bus.
Furman basketball is receiving unprecedented media attention, but the team is focused on more moving forward. “We haven’t even played our best basketball yet,” says Lyons, “we’ll see where we are in March.”
This is a sentiment echoed across the team. Yes, the Paladins wanted to beat the two Final Four teams, and yes, an undefeated start is nice, but Matt Rafferty believes they can do even more: “We want to win the conference and go to the tournament.”. Furman has not been to the NCAA tournament in March since 1980, and have not won a game in the tournament since 1974. “If we act like we’re playing Villanova every night then we have a chance to do something special,” Rafferty believes.
The Paladins are one step closer to ending atop the SoCon, defeating Western Carolina in double overtime Saturday, Dec. 1. There is a lot of season left, and a lot more work to be done, but right now the Furman Paladins are undefeated, something Furman fans of old have never seen, and that is something that deserves to be celebrated.