Asheville, N.C. -- No. 10 seed Furman rallied from an 11-point second half deficit by ending the game on a 25-11 run to upset No. 3 seed Mercer and earn a spot in Monday's championship game of the Southern Conference Men's Basketball Championship presented by General Shale.
The Paladins (11-21) will face top-seed Wofford in the title game, which is set to air live on ESPN2 at 7 p.m., with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line. Monday's game can also be heard on the Furman IMG Sports Network on flagship station WGOG 96.3 FM and Fox Sports 1440 AM with play-by-play voice Dan Scott. The audio broadcast of the game will also be available by logging onto TuneIn.com. Links for the broadcast and live statistics will be available at FurmanPaladins.com.
With the Paladins trailing 38-27 and potentially less than 14;30 minutes remaining in their season, Furman mounted its steady comeback with a stingy defensive effort. Furman held Mercer to just one field goal from the 15:45 mark until Ike Nwamu connected on a jumper with 6:48 remaining. In between, Furman fashioned a 15-2 run to grab its first lead since the opening six minutes of the contest.
John Davis III opened the run followed by a Devin Sibley basket and a pair of Stephen Croone free throws. Nwamu answered another Sibley bucket with a tip-in to extend the Mercer lead to 40-35 with 9:17 remaining, but Daniel Fowler responded with a couple of free throws on Furman's next possession and Croone completed a three-point play the next time down to even the game at 40-40 with 8:43 left. Furman briefly took the lead on a pair of Geoff Beans free throws with 7:19 to go before Nwamu tied the game and T.J. Hallice put the Bears back in front following a Paladin turnover.
Sibley's jumper from the middle of the lane tied the game with 5:03 remaining and Furman recaptured the lead on its next trip down when Kris Acox rose above everyone in the paint to dunk back a missed trey by Beans. Phillip Leonard's free throws knotted the game again before Acox finished at the rim with 2:38 to play to put Furman back in front. Leonard answered again from the line, but Acox scored on an assist from Daniel Fowler with 1:42 left to give the Paladins a 50-48 advantage.
Stephon Jelks pulled Mercer within one point at the free throw line and the Bears had a chance to take the lead following Croone's miss with 1:03 on the clock. The Bears got four looks at the basket on their next possession, but the final was blocked by Acox into the hands of Beans who drew a foul with only 23 seconds left. The freshman hit 1-of-2 free throws and Croone drained 1-of-2 with under 10 seconds left following Jibri Bryan's missed three-pointer. With Furman leading 52-49, Mercer's Nwamu got one last look at a three from the left wing, but he missed long and Davis III grabbed the board as time expired.
"Usually if you know me, I'm not at a loss for words, but I kind of am a little bit here," said Furman head coach Niko Medved after leading the Paladins to their first SoCon final since 2002. "That was an unbelievable gutty performance by our kids. Defense is what's been doing it for us, and boy, we came on in the second half. We held a team like Mercer to 18% shooting. It was incredible toughness, and the kids kept fighting. They kept getting stops."
The Paladins held Mercer to 18.5% shooting in the second half and just 28.8% from the field on the night. Furman compiled a commanding 45-31 rebounding edge and outscored the Bears 22-12 in the paint.
Croone paced the Paladins with 16 points and a career-high 14 rebounds for his third double-double of the season. Sibley, the SoCon Freshman of the Year, tallied 14 points and four steals, while Acox posted his seventh double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
"Stephen Croone is our point guard and he came up with 14 rebounds for us tonight; that is just a man's effort," said Medved. "Kris Acox had 10 rebounds. It's great to see these kids winning in the way that we've been preaching. They've really bought in the last couple weeks of what we need to do. I'm real excited, so, I guess, why stop now?"
Despite shooting just 32.7% from the field and hitting 2-of-16 threes, Furman made good on 16-of-23 trips to the foul line and committed just three second half turnovers after nine miscues in the opening 20 minutes.
Nwamu led Mercer with 15 points, while Hallice and Jelks netted 11 apiece.
The Bears used a 12-1 run late in the first half to build a 31-19 advantage before carrying a 31-23 lead into halftime. The lead increased to 11 points in the early moments of the second half before Furman outscored the Bears 25-11 over the final 14 minutes.
Furman will be returning to the SoCon Championship Game for the first time since suffering a 62-57 defeat to Davidson in the 2002 finale. The Paladins have not claimed the SoCon Tournament crown since 1980.
Monday's championship game will mark the third meeting of the season between the Paladins and Terriers. Wofford claimed a 74-49 triumph in Spartanburg, S.C., on January 22, before escaping with a 62-60 victory over the Paladins in the regular season finale at Timmons Arena in Greenville, S.C., on February 28.
Jordan Caskey, Furman Sports Information