Sunday, March 10, 2024

Paladins oust Catamounts in another classic

Furman's PJay Smith knocks the ball away from Western Carolina's Russell Jones as the final seconds
expire in the Paladins' 79-76 win at the SoCon Tournament Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

ASHEVILLE, N.C. - Much like The Godfather and The Terminator, somehow the sequel was even better than the amazing original. After a thrilling overtime battle in the Southern Conference Tournament semifinals last season, Furman and Western Carolina put on another overtime classic in the SoCon Tournament quarterfinals Saturday.

Once again, the Paladins found a way to advance. Unlike last year when Furman had to battle back after blowing an 18-point second half lead, the Paladins had to withstand a blistering shooting start by the Catamounts Saturday. Furman trailed by as many as 12 in the first half before rallying for the 79-76 overtime win. The fifth-seeded Paladins (17-15) advance to face top-seeded Samford in Sunday's semifinals at 4 p.m.

"What an unbelievable college basketball game. I've been trying to tell everybody how good this league is. I just don't think people understand it. I don't think they've understood it for years. But the high quality of basketball, you saw it on display from noon to tonight," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "Give (Western Carolina coach) Justin (Gray) a lot of credit. I've got a lot of respect for Justin and we've had some classics with them."

There were tons of storylines Saturday, but none bigger than the job Furman's defense did on SoCon Player of the Year Vonterius Woolbright and the turnaround it pulled off. With four minutes left in the first half, Western held a 40-28 lead and was shooting 72.7 percent from the floor. They were shooting like that with no points from Woolbright. He had seven assists and five missed shots before making his first with 52 seconds left in the half. That was the Catamounts' final points of the half as they took a 42-40 lead into the break.

It was like Western picked up where they left off in last Wednesday's home win over Furman when it shot over 60 percent in the second half and scored 55 points that half. But after that four-minute mark left in the first half in which the Catamounts were 16-of-22 from the floor - including 8-of-13 on three-pointers, they made just 15-of-40 (37.5 percent) shots the rest of the way - including 0-for-6 on threes.

"We knew coming into the game that we were going to have to do a much better job on Woolbright. ... Give our team a lot of credit. To have a player that good score 11 points on 14 shots and turn him over six times, that's why we were able to win the game," Richey said. "We were able to survive an incredible shooting display by (Kamar) Robertson and (Tre) Jackson to start the game. It felt like they were hitting everything, but our players kept fighting.

"I couldn't be more proud of our team. Every single person that played did something to help us win. That's the power of the unit. That's how Furman won and that's how we will always win. ... When this team guards we can beat a lot of people. Once we got transition defense shored up after the first five minutes of the game and once we did a much better job guarding their shooters, you saw an unbelievable defensive effort that allowed us to get a classic victory."

The other major storylines Saturday were redemption and classic Furman "team" basketball. Those two things went hand in hand.

J.P. Pegues was his typical phenomenal self with a game-high 28 points thanks in part to making 6-of-11 three-pointers. Dating back to his game-winning three against Virginia in last year's NCAA Tournament, Pegues' reputation for making clutch shots has only grown as he has added more throughout this season.

Western knows fully well about Pegues exploits in the final seconds and were defending him as such. So Pegues relied on his teammates in those final moments on Saturday. It's a pretty safe bet that nobody had who those teammates would be on their bingo card. The game was tied at 67 with 38 seconds left in regulation when Pegues found Garrett Hien for a go-ahead layup and a foul.

Hien missed the free throw and Woolbright drove all the way to the bucket and hit a layup with his non-shooting hand to tie the game at 69-69 with 29 seconds left. After calling timeout with 17 seconds left, Carter Whitt replaced Hien as the Paladins went with a small lineup. As Furman played for the final shot, Pegues for Whitt for a layup that he couldn't get to fall and overtime commenced.

Essentially the same scenario came about in overtime. After Pegues hit a three, the Paladins led 74-71 with three minutes left. Woolbright answered back getting a circus shot to foul while drawing Hien's fifth foul. Woolbright made the free throw to tie the game with 2:47 left. Once again, Whitt came in after Hien fouled out.

Marcus Foster and Woolbright exchanged layups to leave the game tied 76-76 with less than a minute to play. Foster got the ball down low and drew a double team, so he fired to Pegues on the perimeter. Once again, Pegues quickly drew a double team as well and once again, he fired a pass to Whitt for a layup. Whitt came through this time with what turned out to be the game-winner with 47 seconds left.

"That's just the trust and confidence that we have in each other," Pegues said. "Like coach said, there were some plays like on the pass to Garrett Hien where I could've shot it, but I trust him so much I can live with the results with the ball in his hands at a time like that. I feel like that confidence that instills in him helps our team overall."

After Russell Jones missed a layup on the other end, Whitt came away with the rebound. Alex Williams got caught in a trap before midcourt and despite Richey signaling for a timeout with 21 on the shot clock, it got to 20 and Furman turned it over on the 10-second violation. Undaunted, Williams brilliantly defended Woolbright who couldn't get his layup to fall and Foster grabbed the rebound. After Foster hit 1-of-2 free throws, the Catamounts had one more chance trailing 79-76 with 13 seconds left.

Jones' three-pointer from the top of the key missed to the left and went off Foster, who tapped it towards Whitt. Whitt tapped it forward and PJay Smith hit the deck to tap it further away from Western's bucket. Just after the ball crossed midcourt, Williams finally corralled the rebound and glided towards Furman's basket as the final clock expired.

"I thought we had as good a practice on Wednesday and Thursday as we've had in this calendar year. Probably going back to October actually. I challenged our team coming off that Mercer game, but we didn't watch any of it. We just moved on because we know why we didn't win that game," Richey said. "We didn't play good second half defense in Cullowhee or in Greenville (against Mercer in the last week of the regular season). We gave up 103 points in two second halves. Tonight we give up 27 in the second half. It's a choice and that's life. You've got to make to the decision to do hard things and tonight we did that.

"We got the boxscore (at the under-four timeout in the first half). I told them 'they're shooting over 70 percent and you're only down nine. We can shut this thing down or we can go out there and get this defense better.' And PJay Smith's defense from that timeout forward was incredible. They didn't make a three-pointer from that point on. That was the final 29 minutes without a three and that was part of the game plan."

Furman's last basket in the final seconds of regulation which led to overtime was by Hien, who finished with six points, five rebounds, four assists and no turnovers in more than 25 minutes - his biggest playing time in four games. Hien was involved in a kerfuffle with Furman trailing 40-31 in the first half. It wasn't bad enough to draw any technical fouls, but it certainly seemed to spark something in Furman as it got the lead down to two by the half.

With just over two minutes left in regulation, Hien was in the middle of a huge sequence that began with Furman trailing 67-63. As Foster got a shot to fall, Hien and Western's Charles Lampton were fighting for rebounding position when Hien took a shot to the throat and fell to the court. After video review, the foul was deemed flagrant. While Hien missed both technical free throws, Furman retained possession and Foster hit another floater in the paint to tie the game.

Furman's winning basket was by Whitt, who played less than four minutes in the regular season finale last Saturday. He finished with four points, two assists, two steals and no turnovers in 15 minutes. It was Whitt's first game with more than one steal since he had four in the win over Western Carolina in Greenville on Jan. 20.

Furman's game-sealing rebound and run out was by Williams, who had played anywhere from 11 to 24 minutes off the bench in the final three games after serving a three-game suspension for a violation of team rules. Williams had eight points, seven rebounds, two assists and two steals in 36 minutes off the bench. The only game in which Williams played longer this season was Furman's double overtime loss at Tulane.

"Just unbelievable grit by Alex Williams on defense. I couldn't be more proud of him," Richey said. "He had the guts to take the three in transition in a tie game. He missed it, but he continued to just get stops. ... To see him play that hard with everything he's been through, it was incredible."

In addition to Pegues (28), Foster (18) and Smith (12) also reached double figures for the Paladins. Foster also grabbed seven rebounds, while Smith had essentially a perfect game. Smith was 5-for-5 from the floor with a pair of threes, and also had three steals, two assists and no turnovers. Cooper Bowser had all three of Furman's blocked shots including two huge ones back-to-back on one Western possession.

Furman had only six turnovers and outside of Hien, no other Paladin had more than one foul. Furman outscored Western 15-7 on points off turnovers. The Paladins also somehow had an 11-4 advantage in second-chance points despite having only six offensive rebounds while Western grabbed nine.

Woolbright finished 5-of-14 from the floor, but still barely missed his fifth triple-double as he had 11 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. Robertson had 17 points, while Jackson scored 15 to lead Western (22-10).

After wrapping up Saturday's night win around 10:45 p.m., Furman's attention had to quickly turn to preparing for regular season champions who they split with this season. Samford wrapped up its quarterfinal win Saturday about nine hours earlier than the Paladins thanks to the new structure of the tournament schedule this season.

"We've just got to go home, get to bed and get to our plan. We've already got a play. We know how we want to play tomorrow," Richey said. "We get past this win the same way we got past last year. That was a semifinal game last year and we had to regroup and get ready for the championship game and we will do the same thing. Everybody's going to make a big deal about the game time ... but at the end of the day, (Sunday's) going to be two really good teams squaring off in a really high-level semifinal game."

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Paladins hope to regain championship form

Furman will try to win back-to-back Southern Conference Tournament
championships this weekend in Asheville. Photo courtesy of Furman

ASHEVILLE, N.C. - The Furman men's basketball team is experienced enough to know everything it takes to be successful at the Southern Conference Tournament. The Paladins arrived in Asheville this weekend with hopes of making the championship for a third consecutive season and becoming the first SoCon team to cut down the nets in back-to-back seasons since Wofford in 2015.

The fifth-seeded Paladins (16-15) are also smart enough to know one thing that absolutely won't work this weekend. That is any defensive effort like they gave in the final week of the regular season. Western Carolina and Mercer each shot better than 60 percent in their respective second halves to send Furman into the tourney on a two-game losing streak. The loss to the Bears last Saturday completed a season sweep for Mercer, which had lost each of the previous 18 games in the series. It also gave the Paladins two SoCon losses at Timmons Arena this season. Furman had lost only three SoCon games at home over the previous four seasons combined.

Losing two straight and three of your last four isn't an ideal way to enter your conference tournament, but it also doesn't automatically seal your fate. Furman is more battle-tested than any team in the SoCon. That hard schedule in November and December was designed to pay off in March. It's not like the Paladins are alone in how they closed out the regular season.

With the top seed secured, regular season champion Samford rested its three leading scorers in a loss at Wofford last Wednesday. The loss wasn't surprising given the circumstances, but the margin was. With three-and-a-half minutes left in the first half, the Bulldogs led the Terriers by one. With three-and-a-half minutes left in the second half, Wofford led by 39 and went on to a 91-69 win. Meanwhile, second-seeded UNC Greensboro and third-seeded Chattanooga each lost two of their last three. The only SoCon team that didn't lose over the final 10 days of the regular season was fourth-seeded Western Carolina, who will face Furman in Saturday's last quarterfinal at approximately 8:30 p.m. The Catamounts enter on a three-game winning streak.

"We talked about momentum going into Asheville all week and how important it is. We lost at Samford two years ago, then beat Citadel to get some momentum and the next thing you know we're in the championship. Last year we go win down at Samford to win the league (and then win the tournament)," Furman coach Bob Richey said following the Mercer loss. "Two years ago in the COVID year, we go to Wofford and lose at the buzzer on that offensive rebound and then we lose in the quarterfinal game.

"I'm not saying that if you lose today, you can't win in the tournament. It just gives you more that you've got to crawl through. You've got to work through it when you're not playing your best. You want to be feeling good about things this time of year. We've let two get away here back-to-back and you know, it's the same story."

The key is consistency. It's not like the Paladins have played bad defensively all season. There have been times this season where their defense has been excellent. Examples of that were displayed against one of the best offenses in the country in Samford.

The Bulldogs, who rank fourth nationally in scoring at 86.9 points per game, had their lowest scoring output in league play at Greenville Jan. 24. Furman snapped Samford's NCAA-best 17-game winning streak with a 78-68 victory that night. Only Purdue and Virginia Commonwealth, who were Samford's first two opponents, held the Bulldogs to fewer points this season. The Bulldogs were averaging more than 97 points per game at home when Furman visited Birmingham on Feb. 21. The Paladins led that game 72-67 with 40 seconds to play before Samford made a furious rally for a 74-72 win.

"We've won five in a row in this league at one point and four out of five in this league at another," Richey said. "We've had some very good defensive performances and a lot of the year we've been in the top three defensively. But we have to be consistent with it. It can't be selective. ... We're going to fight like heck to figure it out.

"My biggest hope for this team is now they know that it's the next game and if you lose it, you're done. That's where we are now. There's no like, 'hey, come back to practice.' You go out there with your back on the wall and you have to make a choice: How determined are we going to be?"  

The key to Furman's success during that five-game winning streak after starting 0-2 in SoCon play was finally having a fully healthy squad and every member of it contributing. The four out of five streak in February came about after Richey changed the starting lineup following Furman's loss at Mercer on Feb. 7.

Carter Whitt and Alex Williams have not been able to have the same kind of impact coming off the bench down the stretch. After making 5-of-8 three-pointers in a 21-point night at VMI on Jan. 17, Whitt is 0-for-14 from three since and played less than four minutes last Saturday. Whitt had 10 steals over three games of that five-game streak in January, but only six since. Williams has been working his way back into the mix following a three-game suspension for a violation of team rules. He's still third on the team in scoring averaging 13.8 points per game and still leads the team in three-point shooting at 40.7 percent, but hasn't scored more than six points since his return. If he can hit that scoring average and be that lethal outside threat this weekend, it would obviously be a huge boost for Furman.

In addition to defense, three-point shooting is also a key for the Paladins. Richey is still fully confident in his team's shooting ability, but it's been a struggle the last two games. One of Furman's sharpshooters, Marcus Foster, hit 1-of-10 threes at Western and made 1-of-8 against Mercer. It hasn't affected his overall game though as Foster recorded his fifth double-double of the season. Foster, who was named to the All-SoCon second team this week, is averaging 17.2 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.

While J.P. Pegues has hit clutch shots all season, he's been particularly dominant down the stretch. Following a perplexing four-point performance in the loss at Mercer, Pegues has averaged 23 points per game over the final seven games. After somehow being left off the All-SoCon team last season, Pegues was named to the first team this year after leading the Paladins in scoring (18 points per game) and assists (4.9 per game).

While Pegues has been pouring in points of late, he's also led the team in assists each of the last three games. That's not necessarily a good thing. This offense isn't built for someone to score 30-plus points and have half of the team's assists in the same game. It's designed to be more spread out through ball movement and playing connected.

Furman's offensive connection seems to coincide with its defensive connection and vice versa. The Paladins are 12-2 when having more assists than their opponents and 2-12 when having fewer. Furman is 11-0 when holding opponents to fewer than 70 points and 5-15 when allowing 70 or more.

The Paladins may push all the right buttons to get themselves right and that would certainly boost their chances, but it might still not be enough Saturday night. Even if its a modest three-game winning streak, Western Carolina is the hottest team going into the tournament.

The Catamounts are also led by the SoCon Player of the Year Vonterius Woolbright, who recorded his fourth triple-double this season in last Wednesday's win over Furman. That led to his record ninth SoCon Player of the Week honor. The last SoCon Player of the Year to lose in his team's opening game of the tournament was UNCG's Isaiah Miller in 2020. The league's top player has led his team to a tournament championship win four of the last five years, including Jalen Slawson last season.

Having a team full of guys who have been here and done this before, the Paladins still have hope. In the words of Andy Dufresne, 'Hope is a good thing.'

"It all resets in Asheville. In life, you're always looking for hope. Well, we've got hope. We've shown that we can play with anybody in this league in a lot of different games," Richey said. "But it takes a certain intensity, a certain defensive mindset and a certain connection on offense. That's all paramount to how we have to be successful. There's going to be no other way to get this done."

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Another defensive meltdown costs Furman in loss

J.P. Pegues had 19 points and eight assists, but Furman lost
to Mercer 82-75 Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

When the Furman men's basketball team hosted Mercer in Saturday's regular season finale, great moments in Timmons Arena history were highlighted during timeouts as this marked the final men's game in the building before it undergoes a $40 million makeover. It was the last game there until the 2025-26 season, as the transformation into something more closely resembling a Mid-Major arena will take more than a year to complete.

Those highlights primarily came from the last nine seasons. The Paladins won at least 11 games at Timmons each of those years and compiled a 114-20 home record over that time entering Saturday. Unfortunately for most of those in attendance Saturday, Furman's play was more of a tribute to the "bad old days" of the program when it posted three winning records at home over eight seasons from 2007-2015.

For the second consecutive game, the Paladins' defense was completely shredded after halftime. Mercer shot 63.3 percent from the floor (19-of-30), including 71.4 percent (5-of-7) on threes, in the second half on its way to an 82-75 win. After carrying an 18-game losing streak in the series entering this season, the Bears completed the season sweep of the Paladins.

"(Mercer coach) Greg (Gary) did a great job having his team ready to play. I though they played harder than we did, collectively," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "It's hard to win this game when you've got guys that don't want to guard and play connected. We had some guys that did and some that didn't.

"It's a game of connection, chemistry and energy. When you play in your home gym and get beat in all three categories, you can't be surprised by the result. It's on me. It's my job to get a team playing defense. It's my job to get a team that looks like they want to play defense and to get a team connected."

Furman (16-15, 10-8 Southern Conference) entered Saturday with 100 more made three-pointers than Mercer (15-16, 8-10) this season and left Saturday with 100 more as each team made nine. The problem was it took the Paladins 35 attempts to make nine, while it took the Bears just 15.

When the teams met earlier this season in Macon, Mercer hit just one three in each half and went 2-for-9 from beyond the arc. The difference that night was that the Bears dominated down low, outscoring the Paladins 48-32 in the paint. Although that battle was closer Saturday, with Mercer outscoring Furman 40-38 in the paint, the Bears got way too many open looks for three.

"(Mercer's three-pointers) would've been a surprise if we hadn't just given them to them. It's a credit to their ball movement, but I feel like it's a lack of detail on our end," Furman's J.P. Pegues said. "If we give these guys open looks, they're Division I basketball players, they're going to make some. We gave them open looks and when they see one fall and then another, they gain confidence."

The lack of active hands defensively for Furman was highlighted in points off turnovers and fast break points. While the Paladins had just three more turnovers (11) than Mercer (8), the Bears had a 14-5 edge in points off turnovers and a 12-3 scoring advantage on fast breaks.

Furman did outrebound Mercer 40-29, including 19 offensive boards. The Paladins outscored the Bears 18-4 on second chance points, but that was more of a product of Mercer shooting the lights out and Furman shooting like the lights were out. The Paladins trailed by only five at the half despite making just 11-of-34 (32.4 percent) field goals in the first half, including 3-of-16 (18.8 percent) three-pointers.

After the Paladins turned the ball over to open the second half, Mercer got half of its six offensive rebounds and half of its second-chance points on its opening possession. After missing their first three shots of the second half, the Bears didn't miss consecutive shots the rest of the game. From the 13:42 mark of the second half to the 4:29 mark, Mercer made 10-of-12 field goals to turn a four-point lead into a 72-59 lead.

The Bears led by nine with 1:37 left before Pegues hit a three. After a steal by Marcus Foster, Tyrese Hughey drew a foul and hit both free throws to slice the lead to 76-72 with 1:18 left. Mercer ran down all the shot clock on its ensuing possession before 5-foot-10 point guard Caleb Hunter made a tremendous left-handed layup over Foster to push the lead to six with 48 seconds left.

On Furman's next possession, Hughey grabbed an offensive rebound and fired to PJay Smith for a three-pointer that cut the lead to 78-75 as Furman called timeout with 33 seconds left. Hunter was trapped by a pair of Paladins in the corner and had to call Mercer's last timeout with 30 seconds left. The Bears were then able to beat the press and the Paladins had to foul with 25 seconds left. Jalen Cobb hit both free throws to push the lead to 80-75.

After Pegues missed a heavily-contested three, Hunter made a pair of free throws with 11 seconds left to seal Furman's fate. After starting the game with four blocked shots in the opening five minutes, Mercer got its seventh block on the Paladins' final shot of the day.

"I'm not sitting here saying everybody didn't play hard. Let me be real clear. Basketball is a game of connection. It's a game where you have to care about one another and understand how important team is. ... We didn't have a group that just quit. We were down 13 and the game looked like it was cooked and baked, but we fought back to a three-point game," Richey said. "Imagine if we wouldn't have given up wide open threes and would've have everybody crashing (for rebounds). And if we been the more physical, connected team playing with the best energy from a totality standpoint. Maybe it's a different outcome."

Pegues was just 1-of-7 from three, but finished with team-highs in points (19) and assists (8) for Furman. Smith had 17 points and six rebounds. Foster collected his fifth double-double this season with 13 points and 10 rebounds, but had another rough night shooting as he made 1-of-8 three-pointers. Smith and Foster had two assists apiece as they and Pegues combined for all but one of the Paladins' 13 assists. That trio also accounted for all of Furman's three steals with one apiece.

After scoring 28 points on 13-of-21 shooting against Furman the first time the teams played, Mercer's Jalyn McCreary had a game-high 21 points on 10-of-16 shooting Saturday. Meanwhile, freshman David Thomas had 18 points and six assists.

"Jalyn played well and he's playing as good as anybody in our conference on film. We at least made him have to do it on a high volume, but we didn't turn him over. He only had one. We tried to force him to play in crowds, but didn't do that well enough. ... It wasn't just McCreary today. They had four different guys make two or more threes," Richey said. "Marcus is a great shooter. The ball's just not going in from the perimeter for him right now. We will get a lot of shots up this week and get him back on track."

The loss left Furman tied for fifth-place with Wofford in the final SoCon standings. It's the lowest the Paladins have ended up in the standings since finishing in last place in the 2014-15 season. Furman finished at least third every season since until this year.

The Paladins will be the No. 5 seed at this week's SoCon Tournament in Asheville and will face fourth-place Western Carolina at approximately 8:30 p.m. in Saturday's quarterfinal round. The Paladins already knew they were locked into the 4/5 game no matter what happened against Mercer. Richey doesn't believe that factored at all in Furman's play Saturday, and he added that it certainly should not have.

"Heck no. I mean have some pride. You win today, you get the fourth seed. You want to be fourth or fifth? If I get to pick one of those two, I want to be fourth," Richey said. "We've got to make some decisions this week of what we're going to bring to Asheville. We've seen a side of this team that's high in effort, connectivity and defense and we look pretty good. But when you're at 1.24 (rating) on defense in your home gym, you can't expect to win games. Defense has to matter at some point. It's my fault."

Saturday, March 2, 2024

Woolbright helps hand Furman another road loss

J.P. Pegues (1) scored 35 points, but Vonterius Woolbright (2) had his fourth triple-double
this season in Western Carolina's 85-77 win over Furman. Photo courtesy of Furman

CULLOWHEE, N.C. - For the second consecutive Wednesday, Furman wasted a career-high night by J.P. Pegues as the Paladins' Jekyll and Hyde, home and away act continued. Western Carolina used a 30-9 run over a nine-minute stretch of the second half to rally for an 85-77 win in Furman's final road game of the season.

The Paladins (16-14, 10-7 Southern Conference) were coming off a 15-point win over Wofford in which they allowed just one made field goal over the final four minutes - a meaningless three-pointer with 25 seconds left after the Terriers had missed six consecutive shots. On Wednesday, the Catamounts led 65-62 with six minutes left and didn't miss a field goal the rest of the way. Those five field goals - three of which were three-pointers - helped Western shoot 60 percent in its 55-point second half.

"We had 11 deflections the entire game. You're not going to beat a whole lot of people doing that. I just thought we were a half-second late on a lot of plays tonight. I'm not sure why that was. I thought we had two good days of practice and we just didn't appear fresh," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "We were up nine at one point in the second half and it was really similar to the game last year. They made a run and hit us and we didn't respond back real well."

Furman finishes with a 4-10 record on the road this season, in addition to 0-2 in neutral site games. It's the Paladins' worst road record since the 2015-16 team went 3-12 on the road. This year's 3-6 mark at SoCon opponents is Furman's first losing record in league road games since that 2015-16 team went 2-7.

"It wasn't all bad, it just wasn't consistent enough in a road environment like this against a team like that. ... This time of year, we've all got to be ready to be our best There's a process that you've got to go in to be ready to play," Richey said. "Unfortunately, that's two games on the road where we've had to put a lot on J.P.'s back. At home, we seem to be freer and looser and we play more connected and relaxed.

"We don't have to go win the conference (tournament) on the road, but we're not going to be in Timmons (Arena). We've got to figure out what we've got to do to come out and be free, be confident and look like we're out there enjoying the game."

In a matchup of what some would say are the two best players in the SoCon, Pegues and Western's Vonterius Woolbright put on a show. After a 33-point performance at Samford a week earlier, Pegues had a new career-high 35 points and a team-high five assists Wednesday. Meanwhile, Woolbright finished with 15 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds for his fourth triple-double this season and fifth of his career.

The difference Wednesday was that Woolbright's assist total matched that of Furman as the Catamounts (21-9, 10-7) had five players in double figures. They were led by Russell Jones, who hit numerous big shots down the stretch and was 4-of-8 on threes. After being held to three points on 1-of-8 shooting in 37 minutes during Western's loss at Furman earlier this season, Jones had a team-high 20 points Wednesday.

While much is deservedly made of Woolbright's eye-popping offensive numbers, his defense was also a factor Wednesday. The 6-foot-6 guard's length was a problem on quite a few of Marcus Foster's shots. Woolbright helped hold Furman's leading scorer to just five points on 2-of-14 shooting, including 1-of-10 on threes.

"J.P. was phenomenal. He really put the team on his back, but our formula has never been for one guy to do it all. ... We just didn't play with as much confidence as I'd like, outside of J.P.," Richey said. "They had five guys in double figures and we had two. That's why they beat us. ... Woolbright was really good. He played with a lot of juice and poise. I think he got a little frustrated with some turnovers early, but man he made some plays - especially when they were down."

Furman trailed by as many as 11 in the first half and was down 29-21 with three-and-a-half minutes left before an 11-0 run helped the Paladins take a 32-30 lead into halftime. Pegues' three-pointer and four free throws and Cooper Bowser's dunk and two free throws accounted for all the scoring in that run.

The Paladins led at the half despite shooting 34.5 percent, including 2-of-13 (15.4 percent) from three. There had to be the thought that if Furman simply played "okay" defense the rest of the way, its offense certainly would improve after halftime. The Paladins did shoot 47 percent in the second half and hit nine threes, but the defensive letdown made their shooting improvement meaningless.

Ben VanderWal hit back-to-back three-pointers sandwiched around a three-point play by Woolbright to start the second half. Then Pegues and Woolbright just starting going back-and-forth like a classic prize fight. In a less than two minute stretch, Pegues hit a pair of threes and a jumper while Woolbright hit a pair of layups and had an assist on a three by Jones. A minute later, Pegues had a three-point play that Western's Bernard Pelote answered with a three off an assist from Woolbright.

Alex Williams' lone three and Foster's lone three gave Furman a 57-48 lead with 11:52 left before the Catamounts went on a 9-0 run. After Garrett Hien answered that run with a dunk, Corneilous Williams came back with a dunk off an assist by Woolbright on the other end. That sent the game to the under-eight timeout tied at 59. Coming out of the timeout, Pegues hit a pair of free throws before Woolbright once again found Williams for a layup.

With the game tied 61-61 and 7:10 left, perhaps the biggest play of the night gave Western a lead it never relinquished. After Woolbright's layup didn't fall, Williams grabbed the offense rebound and was fouled hard by Hien on the putback attempt. After video review, Hien's fouled was changed to a flagrant technical. Williams hit one free throw and after retaining possession, Tre Jackson made a three-point play giving Western a four-point possession and a four-point lead. After a VanderWal free throw cut the lead to three, Pelote hit another three to start a 13-4 run that put the game out of reach.

"They outplayed us tonight. Let's give them credit," Richey said. "We've got to bounce back quickly. We've got to move on and go close out this season well at home on Saturday versus Mercer."

Pelote had 11 points, six rebounds and two blocks and Western outscored Furman by 26 during his 22 minutes off the bench. Williams had just five points and four rebounds in his 13 minutes off the bench, but he had a plus-minus of plus-14.

VanderWal was the lone other Paladin in double figures, as he had 10 points, six rebounds and two of Furman's four steals.

Looking ahead

Furman will wrap up the regular season by hosting Mercer Saturday at 2 p.m. The game will be televised locally by The CW Ch. 62. It will be the final game in Timmons Arena until the 2025-26 season as renovations will take place all next season.

The Paladins could turn around and face Western Carolina again as the No. 4 vs. No. 5 seed game in the final quarterfinal game of the SoCon Tournament next Saturday in Asheville, but a Furman-Wofford matchup seems more likely. The Paladins and Catamounts are currently tied for fourth at 10-7 in league play, while the Terriers are 9-8.

The only guarantee entering Saturday is that Furman will be in that 4/5 game, which means the Paladins will hang around all day waiting to play. This is the first season in which the SoCon has gone to a quarterfinal schedule where the top four seeds' games will be played in order, one through four.

This Saturday, Western Carolina plays at second-place Chattanooga at 2 p.m., while Wofford will play at last-place VMI at 1 p.m. If no upsets (according to standings) occur, Furman and the Terriers would be victorious while the Catamounts would lose. That would leave the Paladins alone in fourth place and Western and Wofford tied. Those teams split in the regular season, but Wofford would earn the No. 5 seed tiebreaker by virtue of its blowout win over SoCon regular season champion Samford on Wednesday.

In any tiebreaker with Western or Wofford or both, Furman would get the tiebreaker for the No. 4 seed.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Second-half defense leads Paladins past Wofford

Ben VanderWal (4) blocks the shot of Wofford's Chase Cormier
during Furman's 82-67 win Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Playing Wofford at Timmons Arena for the first time since 2021 and for the last time until 2026, Furman enjoyed its biggest packed house of the season Saturday. The Paladins hosted the Terriers at the Bon Secours each of the last two years and will do so again next season while Timmons is being renovated. While those meetings at the Well were fantastic games in front of much bigger crowds, Saturday was a nice reminder of the electric home court advantage Furman has built over the past few seasons - especially in a rivalry game.

Among the 2,547 fans that produced Saturday's standing-room only sellout, the ones in purple and white had plenty to cheer about. J.P. Pegues and Marcus Foster scored 20 points apiece and the Paladins locked down defensively in the second half to post an 82-67 win. After the Terriers shot 51.7 percent in the first half, they were held to 35.7 percent (10-of-28) after halftime.

"There was a lot of offense in that first half and I thought it was going to come down to who could finally generate some stops. We had zero kills (three consecutive scoreless possessions for the opponent) in the first half and then got two or three in the second half. We had one early in the second half, which was big," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "Tyrese (Hughey) was defensive player of the game. That was big because they got 61 paint touches (in Furman's loss) in Spartanburg. We knew we had to do a better job there. ... Tyrese gave us some physicality down there, but it was a complete team effort.

"Thanks to our students. They showed up and showed out. I appreciate them filling that section up. ... When you continue to get consistent home crowds like that, it affects the energy. It's fun to be in that."

Furman (16-13, 10-6 Southern Conference) was coming off a heartbreaking, last-second loss at first-place Samford last Wednesday. In that game, Foster and PJay Smith combined to make just 3-of-16 three-pointers. One thing the Paladins have displayed this season is the ability to come back strong off of gut-punching losses. Foster and Smith displayed that ability when they confidently knocked down each of their first three-point attempts Saturday.

Foster made 5-of-11 threes, while Smith hit 4-of-6 in his 13-point performance. As a team, Furman made 12-of-33 threes, including 7-of-17 (41.2 percent) in the second half.

"I told Marcus after Samford, 'I don't care if you're 1-for-7 (on threes). That means you're about to go 3-for-4 (in the next game).' There's nothing more frustrating for me when I turn on the tape and I see really good shooters not taking great shots and really trying to overcomplicate the game," Richey said. "Those two guys (Foster and Smith) - and Pegues - are elite shooters. Those three are also perfectionists in a lot of ways. They want to see every single one of them go in. As a shooter, you've got to have an 0-for-0 mentality.

"I've got all the faith in the world in those three guys as shooters and I loved seeing Alex (Williams) hit that one at the top of the key. He's another great shooter. We tried to get those four on the court together a little bit more tonight. It's a cluster of a lineup we haven't played a lot, but just to get four shooters out there."

Another big factor in the loss at Samford was points off turnovers. While both teams committed 14 turnovers, the Bulldogs outscored the Paladins 23-10 off those. Furman remedied that Saturday by losing a season-low three turnovers, including none by its guards. Meanwhile the Paladins had 11 points off 12 turnovers, thanks in large part to nine steals. Four of those thefts were by Smith.

"This group's been growing so much. It was probably my worst ball security team for a lot of the year. ... It's funny when the ball starts moving more and you space correctly, you cut correctly and you depend on one another, you get a better quality look," Richey said. "When you get a better quality look your (shooting) percentage is going to go up and your ball security is going to go up."

In a first half where both teams shot 52 percent, it was a bit of a slow start. Furman trailed 12-7 five minutes in and the game was tied at 19 midway through the first half. Foster hit a jumper that started a 9-2 run over the next minute-and-a-half. Smith capped the flurry with a three to give the Paladins a 28-21 lead with 8:28 left in the first half.

Wofford (15-14, 8-8) regained the lead at 37-36 on a three-pointer by Chase Cormier with 2:24 left. Foster answered with a three, Pegues hit a jumper and Foster drew a foul on a three with 28 seconds left. Foster made all three free throws to give Furman a 44-39 lead at the half.

Foster hit back-to-back threes in the first two minutes of the first half as Furman took its first double-digit lead of the game. The Paladins led by as many as 16 with less than six minutes to play before Wofford went on a 7-0 run over a 63-second span to cut the lead to 71-62 with 4:08 remaining. Foster and Smith answered with back-to-back threes to push the lead right back to 15 with 3:10 left. That started an 11-2 run that stretched to 18 before the Terriers hit a three with 25 seconds left to close out the scoring. Wofford had missed six consecutive shots before that three.

"Defense wins these types of games. In the first half, we were a little sloppy, but we made the adjustment in the second half," Pegues said. "We made sure they weren't getting so many threes because they were getting really good looks and knocking them down in the first half. We knew we had to get back in defensive transition and once we did that and got them in the halfcourt, it kind of helped us."

In addition to his 20 points, Pegues had five rebounds, four assists and no turnovers, while Foster had eight rebounds in addition to his 20 points. Besides Smith's 13-point effort, Ben VanderWal was the other Paladin in double figures as he had 11 points, two blocks and two steals. After missing the previous three games due to a suspension for a violation of team rules, Williams played 11 minutes off the bench. Furman's third-leading scorer had an offensive putback immediately after checking in for the first time and later hit a three to finish with five points.

It would have been easy to make it a one-game suspension and have Williams return against second-place Chattanooga and certainly would've been easy to do for the game at first-place Samford. But that would kind of mock the whole point of the suspension.

"It's important in my job that I never forgot that I've got a responsibility for them. Instead of liking me at 20, I need them to love me at 30. He's going to look back on his life and he's going to thank me for what I've asked him to go through these past two weeks," Richey said of Williams. "I've asked him to understand in his heart what it means to be a player here. What it means to be a player here isn't about how many points you score or how many shots you get. For all the people that wore this jersey before him, that's not how this was built. It wasn't built on going and finding a bunch of scorers and a bunch of talent that we just threw out there. This has been sacrificial. This has been about the brotherhood and about building people.

"We love Alex. The reason we're asking him to do this is that we want him to be successful. I thought it was a good omen today that right when he got in the game, he got that offensive rebound. I've been begging him to get on the offensive glass. That's a sacrificial part of the game. ... A-Will's story is going to end up really well. He's got an unbelievable mother. He knows right from wrong. He's had to do some soul searching these last couple of weeks and I've seen him grow. These guys are kids. They're going to make mistakes and I've got to love them through it and help support them. ... I was really pleased with his effort today. He's going to have a big impact on this team over this stretch run, but this growth is going to pay off for him in the long term."

Next up for Furman is a trip to Western Carolina (20-9, 9-7) Wednesday for a 7 p.m. game that will be televised by ESPNU. Given the current SoCon standings with the Paladins in fourth place and the Catamounts in fifth, this same matchup might take place at the SoCon Tournament quarterfinals in Asheville 10 days later. Those seeds will all be sorted out this week as Furman wraps up the regular season by hosting Mercer at 2 p.m. Saturday.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Samford's late blitz thwarts Paladins' rally

J.P. Pegues scored 28 of his career-high 33 points in the second half, but
Furman lost at Samford, 74-72, Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

The Furman men's basketball team used the agony of a heartbreaking loss in the 2022 Southern Conference Tournament championship game to push itself to the 2023 SoCon title and its first NCAA Tournament win in nearly 50 years. That journey was captured by a film crew for the documentary "Better Together," which will be coming to Amazon Prime on March 6. An exclusive screening will be Monday at 6 p.m. at the Peace Center's Gunter Theatre. 

If the Paladins' current plan is to use every heartbreaking loss and other turmoil this regular season to go dancing again this March, they will not be lacking in ammunition when they head to Asheville in two weeks. Much like losses to Princeton, Tulane and UNC Greensboro earlier this season, Furman received another gut punch Wednesday at Samford. An amazing second-half performance by J.P. Pegues was spoiled when the Bulldogs went on a 7-0 run over the final 40 seconds to knock off the Paladins, 74-72.

"Give Samford credit. ... There's a reason those guys are undefeated in here. They made some huge plays," Furman coach Bob Richey said on the Furman Radio Network's postgame show. "We made some critical errors late, but man our team fought. I thought it was a heck of a fight for us to get down 10 and come back in the way we did.

"I thought we settled in in the second half and played with a lot more composure. We were a little keyed up in the first half and that environment got to us."

On a big night of basketball with the top six teams facing off against each other, this final game of the night undoubtedly had the attention of the rest of the SoCon. Those other teams were hoping for a Furman victory to pull first-place Samford closer to the pack. On Furman's last trip to Samford in last season's regular season finale, the game started with Mike Bothwell making basically every shot he fired up as the Paladins dominated from start to finish to earn a share of the SoCon regular season title and top seed for the SoCon Tournament.

This season's trip was the polar opposite start. While Furman (15-13. 9-6) missed each of its first nine three-pointers, Samford (24-4, 13-2) made four early to race out to a 14-4 lead. The Paladins trailed 30-21 late in the half before Garrett Hien hit a pair of free throws and Pegues drained a three at the buzzer to trim the deficit to four at the half.

That Pegues' three was a sign of things to come in the second half.

On a tough shooting night for Marcus Foster and PJay Smith, they hit back-to-back threes early in the second half to tie the game 32-32. Samford answered back though and later went on an 11-2 run to match its biggest lead of the night at 56-46 with 8:23 remaining. Furman answered back with a 9-0 run in less than two minutes thanks a Pegues' jumper, a Hien dunk, two free throws and a three by Pegues.

Furman trailed 60-55 with five minutes left when Pegues drilled three consecutive threes giving the Paladins their first lead of the night at 64-62 with 3:48 left. The Bulldogs' Jermaine Marshall answered with a layup and later a free throw before Pegues drew a foul on a three and knocked down all three foul shots to put Furman back in front, 67-65, with 2:25 left.

The game was tied at 67 when Pegues hit yet another three with 56 seconds left. On the other end, Pegues rebounded a Samford missed layup and was fouled. He hit both free throws to give Furman a 72-67 lead with 45 seconds left.

After making 10 three-pointers in the first half, the Bulldogs were just 4-of-16 from three in the second half before Jaden Campbell somehow got wide open and knocked one down with 39 seconds left to cut the lead to two. Smith had trouble inbounding against Samford's press and tried to throw it off Marshall. Instead, Marshall caught it, drew the foul and made both free throws to tie the game at 72 with 38 seconds left.

With two defenders hounding Pegues on the other end, his three-pointer from the right wing as the shot clock expired bounced off no good. You could tell from the angle of the miss that it could lead to a run out for Samford and that's exactly what happened. Marshall got the rebound and went coast-to-coast for the game-winning layup with 2.9 seconds left.

As soon as the ball went through the net, Ben VanderWal was in the middle of the Samford paint signaling for a timeout. No official stopped play to check the clock for how much time should be remaining or to honor the timeout. In a rush to try to beat the Bulldogs' press from getting set after the layup, Foster quickly inbounded the ball to Pegues who fired up a mid-court shot well before the buzzer. The prayer sailed away to the right as the horn sounded, Bucky ball snapped Furman's four-game winning streak in the series and improved to 16-0 at home this season.

"Three critical errors late that you obviously can't have happen with a five-point lead. ... We sub in Carter (Whitt) to get all guards out there and switch. We don't switch on one of their best shooters gets a three," Richey said. "Then we turn it over there. ... I thought for a second there we were going to be able to pull out a W, but there's a couple more things we can learn from this. We will get better from it."

Pegues finished with a career-high 33 points, including 28 in the second half, and six rebounds. The lone other Paladin in double figures was Hien, who had 10 points, six rebounds and five assists. Smith had eight points on 3-of-11 shooting, while Foster - who scored 22 points in Furman's win over Samford in Greenville - had five points on 1-of-7 shooting all of which were threes. Alex Williams, the Paladins' third-leading scorer this season, missed his third consecutive game due to suspension.

Rylan Jones had 17 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals to lead Samford, while Marshall had 15 points and eight rebounds.

As always, there's no time for moping for Furman. The Paladins return home Saturday to host rival Wofford for a "White Out" game at 2 p.m. It will be the Terriers' first game on Furman's campus since 2021. Wofford's last two trips to Greenville were for games at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Classic Furman defense returns in win over Mocs

J.P. Pegues drives to the basket against Chattanooga Sunday. Pegues
had 22 points in Furman's 82-65 win. Photo courtesy of Furman

It may have been purely coincidental that Furman played arguably its best game of the season Sunday after hearing from former Paladin Jalen Slawson in the team meeting that morning. Just to be sure, Furman may want to set up some kind of Zoom thing moving forward with Slawson back in California. The reigning Southern Conference Player of the Year is now a rookie with the Sacramento Kings. Slawson is averaging 12.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.8 blocks per game for the Kings' G League affiliate (Stockton, Calif.).

The NBA All-Star break gave Slawson a chance to come home to Charleston last weekend, before he headed to Timmons Arena Sunday. He received his 2023 SoCon Championship ring prior to the Paladins' game against Chattanooga. Following the ceremony, Furman looked like that same kind of defensive team that Slawson starred on the past few years.

The Paladins limited the Mocs to 33.9 percent shooting for the game, including 20.7 percent in the first half, to roll to an 82-65 win before a near-capacity crowd at Timmons Arena. Furman forced 13 turnovers and outscored UTC 19-11 in points off turnovers. It's the first time in four games that the Paladins outscored an opponent in points off turnovers as they had just 16 points off them over the last three games combined.

"My whole pregame was just, 'we have to go out there and we have to win this game on our connection.' I think it was the most connected we've looked all year. That first half was definitely our best half of basketball all year," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "We get to halftime and they tell me we've got 17 deflections and I about passed out. We used to get 30 (a game) all the time but this year, we've had (entire) games without 17. You can just feel that energy and freedom.

"We've been fighting like heck for it. I've never spent this much time as a team, harping on how important and vital it is. ... It's all been pouring into that whatever happens on that court, we're going to be a connected group." 

Furman's win sets up a big night of SoCon basketball Wednesday as the top six teams face off with two weeks remaining in the regular season. The fourth-place Paladins (15-12, 9-5) will try to complete the season sweep of first-place Samford (23-4, 12-2) at 7:30 p.m. Meanwhile, the two teams tied for second in the SoCon will face the two teams tied for fifth as UNCG (19-8, 10-4) hosts Western Carolina (19-8, 8-6) and Chattanooga (18-9, 10-4) hosts Wofford (15-12, 8-6).

Sunday's game was stunningly similar to what happened for the road and home teams during the first meeting in Chattanooga on Jan. 6. Playing without injured leading scorer Marcus Foster that day, the Paladins missed 16 consecutive shots in the first half. They made just 7-of-29 (21.4 percent) field goals before halftime that day, while the Mocs made 17-of-33 (51.5 percent). After taking a 43-20 lead into halftime, UTC went on to a 15-point win.

On Sunday, the Mocs missed each of their first 10 shots and was 6-of-29 (20.7 percent) from the floor for the first half. Meanwhile, Furman made 17-of-31 (54.8 percent) shots to take a 48-29 lead into halftime before going on to the 17-point win.

"Chattanooga's really, really good. We know that. (Coach) Dan (Earl) does a great job and they've got a ton of firepower," Richey said. "The way we defended that first half was pretty remarkable."

While Chattanooga got off to an 0-for-10 start before Myles Che hit a three-pointer with 13:41 left in the first half, Furman wasn't much better. The Paladins led 11-10 nine minutes in before the frontcourt started a 23-3 run over the next five-and-a-half minutes. After Cooper Bowser hit a pair of free throws, Carter Whitt rebounded a UTC miss and fired a long pass downcourt hitting Garrett Hien in stride for a dunk that electrified the crowd.

On Furman's next possession, Hien got a putback. On the one after that, Whitt made a dazzling bounce pass to a cutting Ben VanderWal. VanderWal's reverse layup made it 19-10 and forced a Mocs' timeout. Later, the Paladins made three consecutive threes - two by PJay Smith and one by J.P. Pegues - to push the lead to 30-13.

The Paladins took their biggest lead of the game with a minute left in the half when Foster's layup made it 48-24. The Mocs scored the final five points of the half thanks to a horrible technical foul call against Foster. Foster said it was the first technical he's ever had in his life.

UTC got the lead down to 11 nine minutes into the second half, but that's as close as it got. Foster and Tyrese Hughey hit back-to-back threes before Pegues made a layup and a three. Foster capped that flurry with another three as Furman regained command with at 73-51 with 6:18 left.

"I was super excited to play because I didn't get to against them the first time. That gave me a little bit of extra fuel and I was just really proud of our guys for coming in and displaying a great defensive effort to start the game," Foster said. "I'm just glad we all played well. It felt like a great team win. Everyone contributing makes it a classic Furman basketball game."

In addition to the deflections, the Paladins also outrebounded the Mocs 40-33. Furman posted a 30-16 advantage on points in the paint. Honor Huff scored a game-high 26 points to lead UTC. Mocs' leading scorer Trey Bonham was held to two points on 0-for-6 shooting before leaving after Furman's opening possession of the second half with an injury.

Furman was coming off a win over VMI in which it had 18 assists, but Pegues (8) and Whitt (7) accounted for all but three of those. Richey mentioned that he hoped the assists would be more spread out next time and that wish was granted. Furman had 20 assists Sunday - four by Whitt, three apiece by Pegues, Smith and VanderWal, and two apiece by Foster, Hien and Hughey.

"It's always better when it's more spread out because it just shows you the ball is moving everywhere," Richey said. "The go-to guy is the open guy and we're seeking the open guy. ... I thought we had a lot of really good possessions like that tonight."

Pegues had 22 points, five rebounds and no turnovers to lead the Paladins. Foster had 15 points and six rebounds, while Smith scored 11. After playing his way into the starting lineup, VanderWal finished with nine points and seven rebounds.

"He's (VanderWal) earned it. He's at plus-27 tonight and J.P. is at plus-31. Those two were sitting together here at the women's game on Thursday night. It's funny how that works," Richey said. "Ben's a warrior. He just cares about all the things we've discussed here (ball movement, defense, etc.).

"I told our staff after the game that I'd love to know our record when we play him 20 minutes or more. That may end up making me look like an idiot to be honest with you, but I want to see it. Maybe my gut is wrong but I think when he's out there, things that affect winning take place. You don't always know what that is, but it's just those plays where he lays it on the line."

Now Furman turns its attention to Samford. The Paladins, who snapped the Bulldogs' NCAA-best 17-game winning streak with a 78-68 win in Greenville on Jan. 24, will try to be the first team to win on the Bulldogs' home floor since they did in last year's regular season finale.

"It's going to be a great environment. They're going to have a great crowd and (Coach) Bucky (McMillan) does a really good job. We're excited about the opportunity and challenge. I think it's going to continue to show the quality of our league," Richey said. "We got four games left in the regular season. We're going to take them one at a time and just continue to try to get to us."