ORLANDO, Fla. (BP) — The prospect of a student at a Division II school being an active participant at March Madness is a long shot – about as long as from Tigerville, S.C., to Limerick, Ireland.
When Furman University planned two years ago for its pep band to be on the Emerald Isle this month, there was no way of knowing the Paladins would make the NCAA tournament this season for the first time in 43 years. In January, though, it was certainly seen as a possibility and prompted a call from the school’s senior associate athletics director, Drew Ingram, to Gary Rhoden, director of athletic bands at North Greenville University.
Just in case, could North Greenville’s pep band step in for Furman’s Ingram asked Rhoden?
For Rhoden, it was an easy yes. In late February NGU’s band began practicing “The Paladins Song,” which Rhoden, a Furman alum, knew first-hand wasn’t easy. The 21 North Greenville band members and seven from Furman who didn’t make the Ireland trip played together for the first time at a Selection Sunday Celebration event on March 12.
Furman was coming off its winningest single-season ever. However, they were a 13 seed taking on 25-7 Virginia, a 4 seed only four years removed from a national championship.
“Late in the game, we were talking about our flight home,” said Rhoden, who is in his third year at the South Carolina Baptist Convention-affiliated school. “And all of a sudden, we’re making new plans.”
Early in the second half the Cavaliers held a 12-point lead. However, Furman chipped away until going ahead with five minutes left. Virginia pushed it back to a four-point advantage late before two Paladin free throws cut it to two with 12 seconds left.
A chaotic sequence followed with a desperate Virginia pass from their baseline intercepted by Furman’s Garrett Hien at mid-court. Hien passed to sophomore JP Pegues, who hit a long three-pointer with 2.2 seconds left for the lead.
It gave Furman its first tournament win since 1974 (over South Carolina) and made the Paladins the first upset of the tournament while changing the plans of Rhoden and others.
Back in Tigerville, North Greenville Dean Web Drake was watching at his home and celebratory texting with anyone and everyone. After the game he got in touch with Rhoden. Since the pep band was going to have a few extra days in Orlando, the school was going to cover a visit to Disney World.
While sipping on coffee in the Magic Kingdom, Rhoden kept using words like “blessed” in a phone call with BP. It was the first time at Disney for 15 of his band members. Five of them had never been on a plane before the trip.
“We were super excited to be a part of the game yesterday and the tournament,” he said. “This is a great experience for our students and I’m happy for them.”
Furman will play Saturday at 12:10 against 5 seed San Diego State.
A 20-minute drive separates Furman, which is actually closer to the city of Greenville, from North Greenville. They aren’t necessarily rivals, though it isn’t unusual to play each other in various sports.
As is the case with Rhoden, it’s common for faculty to have connections to both schools.
Furman’s coach, Bob Richey, led Florence Christian School to a South Carolina 3A state championship his senior season and was named Player of the Year. He signed at Tennessee Temple University before finishing his playing career at North Greenville.
Conversely, North Greenville coach Chad Lister’s alma mater is – you guessed it – Furman. As if he needed another reason to cheer for the Paladins tomorrow, his son, Rhett, is a guard on the team.
Rhoden was in the marching and pep bands at Furman. Players make plays, but hearing your school’s fight song provides a little extra motivation on such a stage as the Big Dance. Drake has another theory for the Paladins’ first-round win.
“Right before [Furman] made that run to take the lead, they did a little feature on TV about our band stepping in to help,” he said. “I’m just saying … maybe give the band a little more time on the screen.”