Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Furman downs UNCG, rises to first in the SoCon

J.P. Pegues had 17 points and four assists in Furman's 69-57
win at UNC Greensboro Sunday. Photo courtesy of Furman

GREENSBORO, N.C. - You can't win a basketball game in the first five minutes of either half, but a hot start to each one certainly doesn't hurt your chances. All it took for Furman to have two of its best starts to halves all season was a visit to Greensboro Coliseum Sunday to take on the No. 1-ranked defense in the Southern Conference.

The Paladins jumped out to a 16-5 lead less than five minutes into the game, then opened the second half with a 12-4 run on its way to a 69-57 win at UNC Greensboro. After blowing a 13-point lead with less than eight minutes to play in an overtime loss to the Spartans two weeks earlier in Greenville, Furman never led by fewer than six over the final 18 minutes Sunday.

After beating first-place Samford on Wednesday and first-place UNCG on Sunday, the Paladins (17-6, 8-2) moved into a three-way tie for first in the SoCon. The Spartans (14-9, 8-2), who entered allowing a SoCon-best 59.7 points per game in league play, have allowed 149 points (74.5 per game) against Furman this season.

"We know playing them is a 40-minute game. We learned that lesson the hard way at home, but it was good to see our composure. That's been a key to this team - just staying calm, cool, collected and staying in the moment," Richey said. "I thought we did a great job of that in the second half. In the middle of the first half, we lost our composure for a little while. We got it back and went into the tunnel up four. Then the start out of halftime was big. Give our guys a lot of credit for that."

After Jalen Slawson won the opening tip, J.P. Pegues quickly drove to the hole for a tone-setting layup. At the 15:49 mark, Mike Bothwell became the fifth different Paladin to score as his layup capped that opening 16-5 run. Furman was 6-of-7 from the floor over those first four-plus minutes. The only miss resulted in an offensive rebound by Bothwell and subsequently a three-pointer by Marcus Foster.

The Spartans fought back and took a 32-31 lead with two minutes left in the half. The Paladins had just eight bench points, but those were key. Two of them came on a Tyrese Hughey putback with one minute left that snapped a 32-32 tie and Furman led the rest of the way.

UNCG's Mohammed Abdulsalam cut the lead to 37-35 to open the second half before the Paladins went on a 12-2 spurt. All 12 points were courtesy of Pegues and Garrett Hien, who returned to the starting lineup after missing the Samford game with a head injury suffered early at Wofford. That run was capped by a Pegues' three off a steal by Hien to push Furman's lead to 49-37.

"We know they're a great defensive team, so we knew we had to stay sharp," Pegues said. "The starts to both halves were big. We wanted to come out and throw that first punch and be able to stay in the lead."

The Spartans got the lead down to 56-50 on Abdulsalam's layup with 6:32 left. That gave Abdulsalam a career-high 23 points, but that wrapped up the scoring for UNCG's big man. One minute later, Slawson got a floater to fall and drew Abdulsalam's fourth foul. Slawson completed the three-point play, which began a 10-2 run over the next four minutes to seal the win.

As one might expect with a different outcome, quite a few things went differently Sunday than in Greenville two weeks earlier. Nothing was more different than free throws. Early on it appeared it was going to be a repeat from the first meeting and even though Furman often could not get a foul no matter how much contact it drew, the Paladins stayed composed. UNCG went 9-of-14 from the foul line as the Paladins were called for 17 fouls. In Greenville, the Spartans hit 33-of-41 free throws as Furman was whistled for 29 fouls. Meanwhile, the Paladins made 15-of-26 free throws.

"We had seven fouls pretty fast, so we probably played the last 30 minutes with 10. That beats the heck out of how much we fouled last game (against UNCG)," Richey said. "That's discipline. That's being ahead of plays. With these guys (UNCG), you've got to be ahead of plays. If not, you're going to get ducked in and cracked on ball screen situations."

While Abdulsalam dominated inside, making 9-of-10 field goals and grabbing eight rebounds, he really didn't get much help Sunday. No other Spartan had more than seven points or more than three boards. Leading scorer Keyshaun Langley, who had 24 points in Greenville and was averaging 13.9 per game. had four points. Second-leading scorer Keondre Kennedy, who scored 17 at Furman and was averaging 12.9 per game, scored six. Third-leading scorer Mikeal Brown-Jones, who scored 15 in Greenville and was averaging 11.1 per game, had four. Fourth-leading scorer Bas Leyte, who had 14 points at Furman, scored six.

At Furman, UNCG made 7-of-14 three-pointers. On Sunday, it made 2-of-12. The last of those two makes came with 20 seconds left to harmlessly cut the final deficit to 12.

"(Langley's) a really good shooter. He came to Greenville and kind of put his team on his back, so coming in today we just wanted to try to contain him a little bit and make him take some tougher shots," Pegues said. "We ended up having to switch some matchups, so credit to Mike Bothwell. He really stepped it up on the defensive end. I think as a whole, the team did a really good job on the defensive end."

Pegues finished with 17 points, four assists and drew seven fouls to lead Furman. Slawson had 15 points and five rebounds, while Bothwell and Foster each scored 10. Foster added three steals. Hien, who had struggled a bit before suffering the injury at Wofford, had a solid return with nine points, four rebounds and no turnovers. Furman starters had just three turnovers combined.

"Garrett played great. I teased him about missing four free throws to keep us from having five double-figure scorers, but everything he did outside of free throw shooting was phenomenal," Richey said. "All nine (players in the rotation) are going to help us and that's been that's been the difference. We've got nine guys that are ready to go. ... Tonight, we decided to go a little bigger. Some games we'd go a little bit smaller, but that's the beauty of team and having guys who are willing to do it."

Next up for Furman will be Chattanooga (12-11, 4-6) at home Wednesday. Tip-off at Timmons Arena is scheduled for 7 p.m.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Paladins knock off Samford in thrilling fashion

Marcus Foster and Alex Williams celebrate after Foster's game-winning shot in Furman's
91-84 overtime win over Samford Wednesday. Photos courtesy of Furman

Entering Wednesday's Southern Conference showdown against first-place Samford, Furman's Marcus Foster had more 3-pointers in SoCon play than anyone else in the league, hitting 26-of-53 (49.1 percent). But an airball with 1:23 left in overtime Wednesday put Foster at a surprising 0-for-8 from beyond the arc. Foster, who's earned playing time primarily through defense in his career, then committed the cardinal sin of fouling on a three-point shot on the other end. That resulted in a 84-84 tie with 59 seconds left.

A quality that makes great shooters great is their ability to not live in the past. Foster displayed that on the Paladins' ensuing possession. With the shot clock running out, J.P. Pegues drove toward the basket, drew a double team and kicked out to Foster near the right corner. With Foster's defender leaping back toward him from Pegues, Foster drilled the go-ahead three with 30 seconds left. Furman went on to a 91-84 win, handing the Bulldogs their first SoCon loss.

"Marcus probably didn't feel like he had his best game, but man did he make a huge shot in overtime," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "I love the fact that he took the three. ... Shooters have to have an 0-for-0 mentality. Our guys are in here all the time working. If you're going to be in here this much, when you get a look, shoot it."

In a game that greatly exceeded all the hype and on a stage full of stars, Jalen Slawson shined brightest. Like Foster, he made his only three count as it tied the game at 76 with 18 seconds left in regulation to lead to overtime. Slawson led five Paladins in double figure scoring and finished with 26 points, 11 rebounds (six offensive), three steals and a huge block. Slawson drew 11 fouls and made 13-of-15 free throws.

"He draws 11 fouls and only commits two. That's a big-time stat line," Richey said. "Everybody played a huge part and I'm just really proud of our program tonight. This was a program win."

I could never do justice to this game in a normal game story, so I'm going to write about specific key moments and performances instead.

Bothwell's defense secures victory

Pegues has gotten a lot of well-earned credit for tenaciously defending the opposition's best guard this season. That continued Wednesday as Pegues and others doggedly pursued Samford's electric Ques Glover all night. Glover, who scored 20 in his season debut in the Bulldogs' previous game, was 5-of-13 from the floor. But in overtime, Glover hit 1-of-2 free throws after drawing a foul on his way to the basket and then made back-to-back layups to give Samford an 83-82 lead with 1:44 left.

With Pegues starting to cramp up and Bothwell having a three-inch height advantage against Glover, it was Bothwell who drew that assignment after Foster's three put Furman up 87-84. So often in basketball a team leading by three in the final seconds will closely guard the perimeter against a three, allowing the opponent to drive for a fairly uncontested layup.

Not Wednesday.

Bothwell stayed in front of Glover all the way to the basket. Glover's highly contested layup bounced harmlessly off the left side of the backboard not even drawing rim. Alex Williams grabbed the rebound, got fouled and knocked down both free throws with 17 seconds left to help secure the win.

"They got players everywhere. ... We went to all switch (defense) really to try to just keep the ball in front. It was, 'we've got to get to this stop. We're not going to give up an easy one here. At least we're going to try not to.' Ques had been killing us on that middle ball screen ... so we figured something in the middle tunnel was coming. We were able to force the miss without fouling, which was big," Richey said. "Then for a sophomore (Williams) to go up there - those aren't easy free throws and to go hit both of them. ... That was a good finish for us."

Furman's Mike Bothwell defends against Samford's
Ques Glover in the final seconds of overtime.

Wild sequence leads to overtime

Whoever might've tuned in with two minutes left in regulation missed most of a whale of a game, but got to see a full game's worth of highlights the rest of the way. After Bubba Parham's three-pointer pushed Samford's lead to 73-68 with two minutes left, Williams got a layup 12 seconds later and Furman (16-6, 7-2) called timeout.

Coming out of the timeout, Glover faked a three and made a beautiful bounce pass to Jermaine Marshall on the low block. Marshall turned to his right for a layup, but had his shot rejected by Slawson. After Slawson pinned the ball off the backboard it fell to the court where Bothwell pounced on it and wisely called the Paladins' last timeout before getting tied up.

"It felt like that ball was on the ground forever, but those are plays you have to make," Richey said.

On Furman's possession, Pegues dribbled to the middle of the paint and hit Williams for a wide-open three to tie the game 73-73 with 1:03 left. A.J. Staton-McCray, who might be the best player on a handful of SoCon teams but is the sixth-leading scorer for Samford (14-8, 8-1), answered with a three with Foster's hand in his face with 38 seconds left.

Pegues once again dribbled to the paint and kicked out this time to Slawson in the corner. Slawson pump faked Logan Dye and shifted to the wing. Dye recovered enough to still contest Slawson's shot, but the step-back three still went down to tie the game. With Pegues all over him, Parham's wild three-point attempt at the buzzer bounced off the top corner of the backboard no good.

"It's late in the game. Somebody had to shoot it and it came to me. I hadn't hit one, so I felt like I was due," Slawson said. "I shot it with confidence because all my teammates - my brothers, my coaches kept telling me to shoot it. I jumped up there and banged it."

Furman's Jalen Slawson blocks Jermaine
Marshall's shot late in regulation.

Offensive rebounds up

During Furman's overtime loss to UNC Greensboro at its last home game prior to Wednesday, the Paladins missed 33 shots but had only six offensive rebounds. Richey made fixing that essentially the only priority during Furman's next practice. It's paid off since, but nothing quite like it did on Wednesday. After getting 10 offensive rebounds at Chattanooga and 13 at Wofford, Furman grabbed 17 against Samford.

"We should be a good rebounding team. That shouldn't be an area that we struggle in as athletic as we are. ... You look at the bodies and we've got one of the best strength coaches in the country," Richey said. "When you shoot threes, you're going to have some longer rebounds. You just have to go get them."

While his game-winning shot will be remembered, Foster had some huge offensive boards. With the Paladins trailing 51-50, Williams missed a three but Foster soared for a terrific rebound and then found Williams sprinting to the basket. Williams couldn't convert the dunk, but he drew Glover's fourth foul with 11:54 left in the second half.

With Furman down 70-65 and 2:34 left in regulation, Williams missed a three but Foster kept the ball alive to Pegues, who secured it and knocked down a three.

"My shot wasn't falling early on, so I just tried to make an impact the best way I could by crashing (the board). I'm glad I was able to execute and it all worked out," Foster said. "Rebounding has definitely been a big key to our game and coaches really felt like we could get a lot of offensive boards tonight. ... You've just got to go hunt for them."

The Paladins had six of those 17 offensive boards in overtime, including three on the opening possession. The last of those six came off that airball three by Foster as Williams caught it and made the putback to give Furman an 84-83 lead with 1:18 left.

Free throws way up

With the spike in offensive rebounds the last three games, it's probably not a coincidence that Furman's free throw numbers have also gone up. The Paladins converted 27-of-34 free throws Wednesday and got key Bulldogs in foul trouble.

Marshall was averaging 14.6 points and 8.9 rebounds a game entering the Furman game, but had eight points and two rebounds in just 18:51 before fouling out Wednesday. Parham, who had 10 points and six assists, also fouled out.

After shooting 17-of-20 free throws compared to 33-of-41 for UNCG on Jan. 14, Furman made 20-of-25 at Chattanooga and 23-of-29 at Wofford.

Williams, Whitt step up

With Garrett Hien out of the starting lineup due to a concussion suffered in the Wofford game, Williams made his first career start. He responded with 13 points and a career-high nine rebounds (four offensive). Tyrese Hughey returned after missing the Wofford game due to illness and had a couple of big finishes at the rim. Ben VanderWal was sick Tuesday and Wednesday and was ineffective in the game.

Hughey and VanderWal only logged nine minutes apiece off the bench, which made Carter Whitt's play all the more crucial. Whitt had six assists and no turnovers in a season-high 25:34 off the bench. After making 15 turnovers in 11 non-conference games this season, Whitt's only had two in four SoCon games and played quite a few more minutes in those.

Bothwell finished with 17 points and four rebounds, while Pegues had 15 points, seven assists and four rebounds. Foster had 11 points, nine rebounds (four offensive) and four steals.

"Marcus didn't play his best game but man, he had some monster plays," Richey said. "He didn't have a great shooting night and I am zero concerned about that. He's going to make shots."

Dye had 19 points and six rebounds to lead Samford. Staton-McCray had 16 points, six rebounds and no fouls, while Glover had 15 points also for the Bulldogs.

Second half of the SoCon

After ending the first half of SoCon play by facing the first-place team in the SoCon, Furman will begin the second half of the conference slate against the first-place team in the league. The Paladins travel to UNCG Sunday for a 3 p.m. tip-off. The Spartans (14-8, 8-1) moved into a tie for first Wednesday with its win over VMI combined with Samford's loss.

The third-place Paladins will be looking to avenge it's home loss two weeks earlier and continue a trend in the series. The teams have split the regular season series each of the last four years. Two of those seasons saw the road team win each game. A Furman win would also create a three-way tie for first place thanks to Samford's loss at Wofford Saturday. Sunday's game will be televised locally on CW62.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Undersized Paladins pull away from Wofford

J.P. Pegues had career highs in points (26) and rebounds (8), and a team-high four
assists, in Furman's 96-82 win at Wofford Sunday. Photo courtesy of Furman

SPARTANBURG - On a day when Furman's Tyrese Hughey (illness) sat out, Garrett Hien got knocked out and Jalen Slawson fouled out, there were plenty of Paladins who balled out. None more so than J.P. Pegues, who had a career-high 26 points, a career-high eight rebounds and a team-high four assists as the Paladins downed Wofford, 96-82, Sunday.

Even though Slawson's departure made Furman's depleted post even thinner, he also made Sunday's baller list. It was his dominant second half that positioned the Paladins to be able to finish off the Terriers without him for the last couple of minutes. Slawson scored 14 of his 17 points after halftime, including some momentum-swinging dunks, to help Furman (15-6, 6-2 Southern Conference) win consecutive games at Wofford for the first time since the 2003 and 2004 seasons. It's the highest scoring output by the Paladins in Spartanburg since a 109-86 win over the Terriers 53 years ago.

"Just because you have one out or tonight - two out, you've still got a lot out there. You've still got a lot of fighters out there and you've just got to figure it out. After Slaw fouls out, we've got to finish the game with five guards. I don't have any plays for five guards. ... Just go win anyway," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "I thought our team had great composure. We didn't get off to a great start either half, but I thought we regrouped well and made the runs. I didn't think it was our cleanest defensive game, but obviously we played very clean offensively.

"I don't know if there's a faster point guard in this conference than J.P. Pegues right now. Obviously, (Samford's) Ques (Glover) is really fast as well. ... J.P. has clearly anchored himself as a point guard, who's going to be a really good one for years to come in this league."

Playing a SoCon standalone game on a Sunday afternoon before a packed house and an ESPNU audience, Furman sputtered out of the gate. The Paladins trailed 8-0 four-and-a-half minutes in. Their first nine possessions went: turnover, airball three, turnover, missed three, turnover, missed three, turnover, missed three, missed three.

But after Alex Williams' putback of that last missed three finally got Furman on the board, the turnovers suddenly stopped as did the bricked threes soon thereafter. After missing their first six shots from beyond the arc, the Paladins made five consecutive threes as part of an 18-1 run over a stretch of just 2:47 to take a 20-11 lead.

Furman went on that spurt after losing Hien early on in it when he took an inadvertent elbow to the face on a rebound attempt. After a few minutes being checked on the court, Hien went to the locker room and never returned to the bench.

As you might expect in what's become one of the best rivalries in SoCon basketball, the Terriers (11-10, 3-5) answered Furman's big run with a 9-1 one of its own. After what then became more of a layup drill by both teams the rest of the half, the Paladins took a 44-43 lead into halftime.

In the opening half, Pegues had 16 points and five rebounds, while Williams scored 10 off the bench. Despite the absence of two of its biggest (physically) parts of the rotation, Furman had a 20-14 rebounding advantage in the first half including an 8-0 edge in offensive boards.

"Garrett took a big hit early and we basically played the game with one post man. We knew we had to help him out and everybody just had to raise the stakes and step up," Pegues said. "And that's what everybody did today."

After being outscored 8-0 to start the game, the Paladins were outscored 9-0 to start the second half. Wofford hit back-to-back threes and then had a three-point play to take a 52-44 lead. Slawson answered that run by spinning off his defender at the top of the key and gliding to the basket for a dunk. That was a sign of things to come for the Paladins, as it began of stretch of 13-of-15 shooting on two-point field goals.

The back-and-forth game was tied at 60 with 11:44 left before Furman's fifth-year seniors - and Williams - took over. Slawson's three-point play with 11:18 left snapped the tie and gave the Paladins the lead for good. A pair of Williams' three-pointers began and capped a 10-0 run to push Furman's lead to 73-62 with 8:35 left.

Over the next critically important minutes of the game, nearly every Wofford score was immediately answered by Bothwell or Slawson. After a Terrier three cut the lead to 73-67, Bothwell drove for a teardrop layup 16 seconds later. After Jackson Paveletzke's jumper for Wofford sliced the lead to 75-69, Slawson hit a turnaround jumper along the baseline 27 seconds later. B.J. Mack's layup cut the lead to 77-73 before it took all of six seconds for Carter Whitt's long pass to Slawson for a dunk on the other end.

"When they score and we throw it over the top to Slawson ... those are just demoralizing plays (for the opponent). They take a lot of discipline to do and it's something that we've had to really work at," Richey said. "The difference for us between jogging and sprinting isn't big. When we sprint, we're tough to guard in transition.

"The speed that we're playing with right now and the way we can run the floor, if we can get stops and get rebounds, it's hard (to defend). ... Guys are settling into their roles and they're really buying in to making sure that all nine have to be a part of this."

If that Slawson dunk was a punch to Wofford's gut, his next was the knockout blow. On Furman's next possession, Slawson basically dribbled from one end of the floor to the other for a dunk in which he also drew a foul. He hit the free throw to extend the lead to 82-73. By the time Slawson fouled out with 2:20 left, Furman's lead had reached 13 and it felt like the result was hardly in doubt.

The Paladins made each of their last 11 free throws to close out the victory. While Bothwell was only 3-of-7 from the floor, he drew eight fouls and hit 13-of-14 free throws to finish with 20 points. As a team, Furman converted 23-of-29 free throws.

Williams finished one shy of his career-high scoring game with 18 points and five rebounds. After making 7-of-28 three-pointers this season, he drilled 4-of-8 Sunday as part of a career-high seven made field goals in 11 attempts. In addition to Williams, Ben VanderWal was huge off the bench as he recorded his first double-double with 11 points and a career-high 11 rebounds. Six of those boards came on offense, as Furman outrebounded Wofford, 42-30, including 13 offensive.

"G (Hien) is one of our warriors ... so I felt like I just had to come out and just be the bruiser out there. Just getting on the floor and doing the hard things that people don't necessarily want to do," Williams said. "I just thank the coaches for believing in me and my talents."

Paveletzke, a freshman who is and will continue to be a problem, led Wofford with 25 points, while Mack finished with 21.

After those four turnovers in the first four minutes, Furman had just five the rest of the way. The last coming on an intentional shot clock violation with one second left. Wofford had even fewer turnovers as it finished with six, but in an odd way that somehow makes the Paladins' offensive performance even more impressive.

The biggest on-court factor in what's transformed Furman into a well-respected mid-major program has been defense, specifically making deflections and turning steals into points in transition. For the Paladins to score 96 points on the road in the SoCon and only have two steals is rather remarkable. It shows that Furman is discovering other ways to succeed.

The Paladins officially only scored four "fast break" points. But to start a game with no points over the first four-and-a-half minutes and end up with nearly 100 shows Furman can score pretty fast and in bunches.

"It's where we've made a big push this year. (New assistant coach) Chad Warner's been a huge boost to our staff and has brought a lot of offensive concepts in the transition piece of the game. It's really been a good complement to what we've already done," Richey said. "It's like, 'let's play horizontal and vertical. Let's stretch this whole court out and use all the space as fast as we can.' "

Speaking of scoring fast, the top two offenses during SoCon play square off Wednesday when Furman hosts Samford at 7 p.m. to wrap up the first half of the league schedule. The Paladins are averaging 82 points per game in conference play, while the first-place Bulldogs (14-7, 8-0) average 76.4 points per game. Samford is also second in scoring defense in SoCon games, allowing just 66.8 points per game.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Furman closes strong in win at Chattanooga

Mike Bothwell scored a game-high 22 points in Furman's 77-69
win at Chattanooga Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

While Furman took a three-point lead into halftime at Chattanooga Wednesday night, it was the Mocs who carried momentum into the break. For the third consecutive half, the Paladins saw a larger lead whittled down in the final portion of a half. Fortunately for Furman, that streak didn't reach four.

The Paladins not only didn't falter down the stretch, they dominated. Furman went on a 13-3 run over the final 4:18 of the game to record a 77-69 win at McKenzie Arena. Over the final 9:19, Chattanooga made 2-of-13 field goals. The second of those makes was a putback with 22 seconds left that merely cut Furman's lead to five.

Pulling out a gutsy, road win against a team that you went 0-and-3 against last season would always be celebrated. For Furman (14-6, 5-2 Southern Conference), Wednesday's victory stood out a bit more considering how it bounced back from blowing a late 13-point lead in an overtime loss to UNC Greensboro the last time out.

"I'm really proud of our team and just the response to Saturday with everything these players have to deal with in this day and age," Furman coach Bob Richey said on the Furman Radio Network's postgame show. "I told them today, 'look, we've got to go out there and find some joy. ... We've just got to go play the game the way we're made to play the game and go through it with a good spirit with the understanding that we're going to get tested. There's going to be adverse moments and we're on the road.' I'll tell you what, they passed the test tonight."

The Paladins sputtered out of the gate at Chattanooga (11-9, 3-4). The lone made field goal over the first seven minutes was a Jalen Slawson jumper as the Mocs jumped out to a 13-6 lead. Six different Paladins combined for seven missed 3-pointers over those first seven minutes.

On the last of those, Ben VanderWal got the offensive rebound and scored. That started a 9-0 run over the next two-and-a-half minutes as Furman finally started looking inside for points. Marcus Foster's layup with 2:22 left in the half gave the Paladins their biggest lead of the night at 38-29. Furman has led by at least nine points in every SoCon game this season.

Just as it happened in the first and second half against UNCG, the Paladins ended the first half on a whimper. In the last five seconds of the half, Chattanooga got two offensive rebounds and Jake Stephens' putback at the buzzer cut Furman's lead to 40-37. It felt eerily similar to last season when the Paladins led at the half in all three games against the Mocs, only to go on to lose all three.

It also felt like Furman did a good job of denying Stephens the ball for much of the first half. After opening the game with a missed three-pointer, Stephens only had one other shot attempt before making his first field goal at the 9:30 mark. Despite all that, the SoCon's leader in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots ended up with 12 points and seven rebounds in the first half.

Coming out of halftime, Furman responded well from the shaky end of the first half. Slawson's putback pushed the lead to 57-50 with 14:05 left. Then the Paladins went on one of those out-of-nowhere cold spells. Over the next 8:16, Furman went 0-for-9 from the floor - and 3-of-6 from the foul line - as Chattanooga rallied to take a 61-60 lead with less than six minutes remaining.

Fortunately for the Paladins, the last part of their cold spell coincided with the beginning of Chattanooga's game-ending freeze. After Mike Bothwell's jumper tied the game at 66 with 4:18 left, Carter Whitt made his biggest shot as a Paladin when he drained a three with 2:42 left. That snapped the tie and gave Furman the lead for good. After a rebound by Whitt, Bothwell hit a jumper to push the lead to 71-66 with 58 seconds left and the Paladins went 6-for-6 from the foul line the rest of the way to seal the win.

Coming off Saturday's loss in which starting point guard J.P. Pegues had to sit out late moments of due to leg cramps, Whitt logged 22 minutes Wednesday. The Wake Forest transfer, who did not dress out a few games due to injury, had only played 80 seconds - all at Mercer - in conference play prior to Wednesday.

"I'm so proud of Carter Whitt and obviously the plays he made down the stretch. He's been battling and his attitude has been phenomenal lately. He stayed in the gym. He's been working and we've seen it coming," Richey said. "I didn't know he was going to make the shot to go up tonight, but I had a feeling he was going to play well.

"I knew I overplayed our guards a little bit on Saturday. We had to get to nine (players in the rotation). We stayed fresh and boy did we need it. I thought that was a huge key to the game."

Stephens was held to six points and one rebound in the second half to finish with 18 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots. The VMI transfer, who's been SoCon Player of the Week six times this season, entered averaging 21.9 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. It was later discovered that Stephens suffered a broken hand in the game and is out indefinitely.

Bothwell, the second-leading scorer in the league, finished with a game-high 22 points, while Slawson had 21 points, seven rebounds, two steals and a block. Slawson played brilliantly down the stretch as he managed to stay effective and not foul out after picking up his fourth foul with 8:37 left. Pegues had 11 points and seven rebounds, while Foster had 10 points and seven rebounds also for Furman.

"Defensively, we had to go a little bit smaller tonight. We put Slawson on Jake and he just did a tremendous job on him. He's a really hard cover and I think six of (Stephens') points in the first half came on offensive rebounds," Richey said. "We made some huge plays on the defensive end. That's what this team has to continue to grow into - understanding to get stops to win games, especially on the road, on the defensive end and not let our spirit get down.

"Everybody contributed and I'm just really proud of road performance. To be able to hold them to 37 percent in the second half and 40 percent for the game, that's really hard to do."

For the second consecutive game, the Paladins held their opponent to single-digit field goals made in the second half as the Mocs went 9-of-24 after halftime. It was a rare game in which game in which Furman won despite getting outrebounded (35-31). It was even more rare that the Paladins won despite having only eight assists. The last time Furman won with that low of an assist total came on Dec. 30, 2020, when it had eight in a 77-73 win over Chattanooga. 

Furman will next play at rival Wofford Sunday at 4 p.m. The game will be televised by ESPNU. The Terriers (11-9, 3-4) are coming off a heartbreaking 76-71 loss at Western Carolina Wednesday. Wofford led 71-67 before the Catamounts went on an 9-0 run over the final 28 seconds of the game to get the win.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Paladins foul up big lead in loss to UNCG

Jalen Slawson had 22 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots in Furman's
88-80 overtime loss to UNCG Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Furman has had a second-half lead of at least nine points in all six of its Southern Conference games this season. For the second time among those, the Paladins saw it slip away Saturday. UNC Greensboro rallied from a 13-point deficit with less than seven minutes left in regulation to post an 88-80 overtime win before a sold out crowd at Timmons Arena.

Foul trouble that had pestered Furman (13-6, 4-2) all day finally caught up to it by the end of regulation Saturday. The 29 total fouls it was called for, combined with going ice cold late in regulation and in overtime, combined with losing starting point guard J.P. Pegues to leg cramps down the stretch and in overtime doomed for the Paladins. The Spartans (11-8, 5-1), who had not shot more than 20 free throws in any SoCon game this season, made 33-of-41 Saturday. While UNCG only made 8-of-24 field goals in the second half, it made 20-of-24 free throws in the second half.

"The story of the game is the fouls. You're probably not going to win any games letting them shoot 41 free throws. We've got to get better there," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "A lot of credit to Greensboro ... for the competitiveness they played with down the stretch down 13 with less than eight minutes to go. They scrambled the game and increased the pressure a little bit. I thought it got us on our heels.

"It was a heck of a game in a heck of an environment. I thought our team did a lot of good things and I'm proud of their effort. I'm proud of how they came out of halftime, the adjustments they made, and how they played for those (first) 13 minutes (of the second half). But it wasn't enough. When you get in these big games, you've got to close them out."

When Pegues brilliantly lost his defender on a drive to the basket to give Furman its biggest lead at 69-56 with 7:55 left, Timmons was rocking and UNCG called timeout. There had to be a thought that even with the mountain of fouls, the Paladins were going to capture a win in what would be a very unusual way given this series' history.

While their recent games against the Spartans have been fantastic, they were all "rock fights" as Richey and former coach Niko Medved would say. Furman had more points (69) with eight minutes left than it had in any of the two teams' previous four meetings. That was also five more points than UNCG's top-ranked SoCon scoring defense had been allowing this season.

Mike Bothwell's layup with 6:10 left in regulation pushed Furman's lead to 71-60 and the Paladins were shooting 55.6 percent (25-of-45) at that point. The Paladins made just 2-of-15 field goals the rest of the way, including 0-of-5 in overtime. After just one turnover over nearly the first 17 minutes of the second half, Furman had five over the final 3:11 of regulation through overtime.

"Credit to them. They switched up how they were playing and kind of started trapping a little bit more off the ball, speeding us up," Bothwell said. "We started taking too many dribbles and weren't getting the ball popping as much as we were when we were on our run. It really wasn't our foul situation. We just got too stagnant and dribbled around too much."

Furman's next made field goal came at a crucial time on a Pegues' layup with 1:55 left to give the Paladins a 75-71 lead. The Spartans' Keyshaun Langley had a rare miss on the other end. With Furman big man Garrett Hien having fouled out four minutes earlier, UNCG big man Ben Leyte grabbed the offensive rebound and drew a foul with 1:31 left. That's when Pegues left the game for the first time in the second half.

Leyte made both free throws to cut the lead to two. With its point guard on the bench receiving medical attention, Furman's ensuing possession was not pretty. Bothwell's contested jumper as the shot clock wound down bounced off no good and UNCG got the board. The Paladins defense forced a miss on the other end, but again Leyte got the offensive rebound drew a foul and tied the game at 75 with 38 seconds left.

Furman regained the lead on a great putback by Ben VanderWal with 16 seconds left. One second later, Jalen Slawson inexplicably fouled Kobe Langley 60 feet from the basket. Slawson may not have actually fouled him at all but he got close enough to be called for one, which was all Saturday's crew seemingly needed for a whistle. Langley hit both free throws to tie the game. Bothwell's shot at the buzzer was rejected by Keondre Kennedy for the Spartans' lone block of the game.

"At the end of the day, we had two balls in the air that were misses in the last minute of the game. Had we secured possession, I think we come out on top," Richey said. "We gave both rebounds up. I guess we foul on both of them and they hit all four free throws.

"We still had the ball at the end of regulation, but didn't get a great look. And you know, that's on me. I gotta get our guys in a better position to get a better look there. Give them credit for getting that stop."

Pegues was able to start the overtime period. After scoring 18 points in the second half, Slawson drew a foul to start overtime and hit 1-of-2 free throws to give Furman the lead. After the teams exchanged misses, Keyshaun Langley's three gave UNCG the lead back for good with 3:47 left. When play stopped after a Slawson turnover with 3:16 remaining, Pegues left and didn't return.

The Paladins' only points the rest of the way came when Marcus Foster hit 2-of-3 free throws with 48 seconds left to cut the lead to 84-80. Furman appeared to possibly force a five-second call as UNCG struggled to inbound the ensuing possession, but it wasn't called as Richey vehemently argued with officials for it. It was 85-80 with 34 seconds left when Joe Anderson's errant pass was picked off by Langley, who cruised to the bucket for a layup and the final nail in Furman's coffin.

Furman's 29 fouls were the most in a game since it was whistled for 29 in an 80-69 loss at TCU on Dec. 9, 2014. Record books could not track the last time - if ever - the Paladins were whistled for 29 fouls at home. One of the most controversial of those calls came with 15:53 left in the second half when Hien was called for a foul in which UNCG's Mikeal Brown-Jones fell to the ground.

As Brown-Jones got up, it appeared on replay that Hien's knee made contact with his side. Both players got in each other's face and were separated. Despite no punches or shoves taking place, both were called for technical fouls. The regular foul and double technical saw Hien go from two fouls to four. News of the double tech did not sit well with Richey. Richey argued to the point that one official, who had gone to the scorer's table for a video review, yelled "I heard you Bob. Go back," as pointed to the Furman bench. That little message really didn't sit well with Richey.

Hien's foul trouble affected the rotation and he wasn't alone among foul woes in the frontcourt. Thirty seconds after Hien's fourth foul, Tyrese Hughey was called for his fourth and he finished with that many in just 7:32 of playing time. Slawson and Williams fouled out in overtime and Foster finished with four fouls.

"I haven't seen much like that today. That's all I'm gonna say (about the fouls)," Richey said. "Amazingly enough, with all that, we have two balls go in the air in the last minute with the lead and got neither of them. You hate that because it all impacts that situation, but we've got to get those balls.

"It was frustrating that they were in the bonus quickly in both halves, but you don't always control part of that. When that ball goes in the air and you've got to get a rebound to close the game out, you do control that."

Slawson and Bothwell each scored 22 points to lead Furman. Slawson also had 12 rebounds and four blocked shots. Bothwell also had six rebounds and three assists. Foster had 15 points and Pegues scored 13. It was an odd night in which Furman had 13 turnovers and just nine assists.

Keyshaun Langley had a game-high 24 points for the Spartans, who had rallies at the end of each half. Furman led 32-27 with 3:28 left in the first half, before UNCG made each of its last five shots of the half to take a 40-38 lead into halftime.

There's no time for Furman to dwell on the loss as this was the first game of a tough seven-game stretch. The Paladins will play at Chattanooga Wednesday at 7 p.m. It will be a matchup of teams who saw big leads fade in key games on the first showdown Saturday of the season. The Mocs had a 19-point lead at Samford Saturday before the Bulldogs came back for a 75-74 win to remain the only unbeaten team in SoCon play.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Another big first half helps Paladins top Mercer

Marcus Foster scored a career-high 25 points in Furman's
84-66 win at Mercer Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

On Wednesday night at Mercer, the Furman basketball team showed the best way to overcome a 31-percent shooting second half. That turned out to be shooting 71 percent in the first half. For the second consecutive game, Marcus Foster shot the lights out before halftime Wednesday. Unlike Saturday at ETSU, most of his teammates joined in this first half barrage of buckets.

The Paladins made 17 of their first 20 shots to build an 18-point lead and went on to an 84-66 win over the Bears. It's the 16th consecutive victory in the series for Furman. Foster finished with a career-high 25 points, including 18 in the first half - the same total he scored in the first half at ETSU.

While the two halves could not have been more different offensively for Furman, defensive consistency was once a again a key. After limiting ETSU to 33.3 percent shooting in each half Saturday, the Paladins held Mercer to 41.4 percent shooting in the first half and 42.4 percent in the second half.

"I'll absolutely take an 18-point win on the road. It wasn't as clean of a second half as I'd like, but give them (Mercer) some credit. They came out (after halftime) and played a lot harder. They tried to pressure us and got us out of rhythm," Coach Bob Richey said on the Furman Radio Network's postgame show. "I think they cut it to 14 and then we made some plays to stretch it back out and finish the game well. ... I thought there were a number of guys to step up. Marcus Foster continues to play lights out. I thought Mike (Bothwell) made some crucial plays at critical times."

Furman's defense was a bit uneven from the tip as the game was a shootout for the first few minutes. Shannon Grant's third made field goal at the 16:42 mark gave Mercer an 11-10 lead. While Grant was woofing to the Paladins about his <checks notes> layup, his defensive responsibility - Tyrese Hughey - was headed back down the court. After Grant's score, it took all of six seconds for J.P. Pegues to lob a three-quarter court pass over all the Bears' heads to Hughey for an easy layup.

The Paladins (13-5, 4-1 Southern Conference) never trailed again.

Grant's missed shot on the ensuing possession started a stretch of five consecutive misses for Mercer, the first four of those being shots in the paint. While the Bears got the offensive rebound after four of those misses, Furman made it a 10-0 run thanks to a jumper by Bothwell and 3-pointers by Pegues and Foster.

It was a 23-18 lead with 13 minutes left in the first half when the Paladins went on a 15-2 run over a 5:05 stretch. The first six field goals of that 7-of-8 shooting spurt were made by Ben VanderWal, Garrett Hien, Pegues, Jalen Slawson, Bothwell and Foster.

When Slawson drained a three with 1:35 left in the half, Furman was 20-of-26 from the floor and led by 19. Foster was fouled on a 3-pointer with 55 seconds left and made all three free throws to give the Paladins a 52-32 halftime lead.

"That was a pretty cushion of a 20-point lead, but it was kind of a fool's gold perspective because we're shooting like 80 percent. For a little while there, it felt like we couldn't miss," Richey said. "We were minus-two in box touches at halftime, minus-two in raw possessions and had given up eight offensive rebounds, so there was plenty to come back out here and try to do better (in the second half). I thought we did some of those things better."

After missing its last two field goals of the first half, Furman went 4-of-19 from the floor over the first 14:32 of the second half. But Mercer (7-11, 0-5) never got the lead below 14 thanks to defense and free throws. The Paladins, who made 14-of-17 free throws in the second half, did make four of their last seven shots to seal the win.

For the second consecutive game, Furman lost the rebounding battle (38-31) but won the game. It had gone 0-4 in games in which it was outrebounded this season prior to the last two.

It was also yet another game in which the Paladins made the opposition's leading scorer a non-factor, primarily due to Pegues' defense. Mercer leading scorer Jalyn McCreary, who was averaging 15.5 points per game entering Wednesday, was held scoreless on 0-of-6 shooting. The Bears' second-leading scorer, Kamar Robertson, entered Wednesday shooting 51 percent, including 50 percent (29-of-58) from three. He had 12 points on 3-of-11 shooting, including 0-for-3 from three.

Over these first five games of conference play, opposing teams' season-leading scorers have combined for 28 points on 7-of-42 (16.7 percent) shooting against Furman.

"J.P. continues to be an absolute force on the defensive end of the floor. He's just growing by the day," Richey said. "Even listening to his communication out there, it's so neat to see how he's really taken another step."

On his career-high scoring night, Foster made 7-of-9 shots, including 6-of-7 threes, 5-of-6 free throws and also had a team-high seven rebounds. Bothwell finished with 17 points, while Slawson had 15 points, five rebounds and five assists.

After opening league play against five teams picked to finish in the bottom half of the conference, now the schedule shifts for Furman. The next seven games for the Paladins will be against the four other teams picked to finish in the top half of the league. That begins with a second-place battle against UNC Greensboro (10-8, 4-1) Saturday at 4 p.m. at Timmons Arena. The game is expected to be a sellout.

Saturday will be a matchup of the SoCon's best offense and best defense. Furman is fifth in the country in assists per game (19.2), 11th is shooting percentage (49.8), 13th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.53) and 21st in scoring (82.1 points per game). The Spartans lead the SoCon in scoring defense (64.1 points allowed per game), field-goal percentage defense (39.5) and three-point shooting percentage defense (30.7).

The teams have split the season series each of the last four years. Last season, Furman won at UNCG, 58-54. In the rematch at Bon Secours Wellness Arena, the Paladins went on an 18-0 run to take a one-point lead with 59 seconds left but the Spartans pulled out a 58-56 win.

"It's going to be a different challenge. We know how well they guard. We know last year they guarded us great in both games. Both were unbelievable games with unbelievable finishes," Richey said. "I've got a lot of respect for (UNCG coach) Mike (Jones) and the way he does it. We're gonna be back at Timmons and hopefully will have a great crowd with tons of energy, because it should be a heck of a college basketball game."

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Foster's treys, Pegues' defense lift Furman to win

J.P. Pegues' defense powered Furman to a 70-54 win at
East Tennessee State Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. - There was a point in the first half of Furman's game at East Tennessee State Saturday in which Furman missed 12 consecutive shots. As it turns out, the Paladins had simply not found the right shooter in the right spot yet.

Marcus Foster ended that skid with a three-pointer. Then he hit another three. And then another. And then another. Foster scored 18 of his game-high 21 points in the first half, and also pulled down 11 rebounds, to power Furman to a 70-56 win. The Paladins (12-5, 3-1 Southern Conference) held the Bucs to 33.3 percent shooting in each half in recording their second-largest margin of victory ever at ETSU.

"We got to do this with our defense. We've been trying to emphasize it and fight with these guys about it and give our team credit. ... It's starting to pay off. We guarded the ball better. We kept the ball out of the post for the most part. We did a really good job in transition defense, and we did a really good job on their best player," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "We got off to a really good start and then they went zone, which we anticipated that because they did that here last year. ... Once we finally settled down, took a timeout and just relaxed our guys a little bit, we started getting some better movement against the zone and that opened it up for Marcus to get loose.

"Man, it's fun to watch him shoot the ball, defend like he's defending right now, and really rebound the way he's rebounding right now. He just looks like the player we all know he can be. When he plays well, it gives us a whole new dimension."

For the second consecutive game, Furman (12-5, 3-1 Southern Conference) got off to a great start especially on the defensive end of the court. Mike Bothwell's three-point play with 9:51 left gave the Paladins a 21-11 lead, but then the cold snap began. That stretch of 12 consecutive misses included one agonizing possession where Foster grabbed three offensive rebounds - and missed three putbacks.

What had to be frustration on the offensive end never affected Furman's defense though. Over that five-and-a-half minute stretch without a bucket, ETSU only got the lead down to 23-18 with 4:25 left. That's when the next three minutes became the Marcus Foster show. Alex Williams got a rebound and found Foster for his first three. After a Ben VanderWal offensive board, J.P. Pegues hit Foster for his next three. Williams found Foster for his next one, and Jalen Slawson hit him for his fourth.

"We were in that little slump and I just tried to stay ready for my opportunity and calm. My teammates kept finding me and I was able to knock them down," Foster said. "To hold them to 56, we're proud of that. We've been working on defense relentlessly, so it's good to see that translate."

VanderWal's fast break dunk followed Foster's personal 12-2 run and what had been a five-point lead with less than five minutes left in the half became a 37-20 lead with 1:04 left. ETSU got one of its three three-pointers for the game at the buzzer to send the game into halftime at 37-23. Furman had just two turnovers in the opening half.

For the second consecutive game, the Paladins didn't get comfortable despite having a comfortable lead. After the Bucs (6-11, 2-2) made their first shot of the second half 39 seconds into it, their next made bucket didn't come until the 11:04 mark. By then, the Paladins had stretched the lead to 51-32. Furman led by as many as 22 and never by fewer than 13 the rest of the way.

The Paladins outstanding defensive effort once again was sparked by making the opposition's top scorer miserable, and that effort was once again spearheaded by Pegues. ETSU leading scorer Jordan King, who entered Saturday averaging 13.1 points per game, was held to five points on 0-of-9 shooting. As a team, the Bucs were 20-of-60 from the floor, including 3-of-21 from three.

"The defense that J.P. Pegues is playing right now for us is incredible. We lost a machine on that end of the floor in (former point guard) Alex Hunter and J.P. is really emerging as the guy there," Richey said. "You look at these last two games and how he was able to guard (Citadel leading scorer Austin) Ash and how he was able to guard King today, it's pretty impressive."

That defensive effort helped Furman overcome a few things that didn't go its typical way, which should actually be a confidence boost moving forward. For the first time this season, the Paladins won a game in which they were outrebounded (42-35). Bothwell had 13 points on 4-of-14 shooting, including 0-for-7 from three. As a team, Furman shot 41.7 percent - well below it's top 10 nationally rated average of 50.2 percent entering Saturday.

Despite those numbers, the Paladins got a 14-point victory in historically one of the toughest environments in mid-major basketball. It's just Furman's second win in Johnson City since the 2004-05 season and its most lopsided there ever outside of a 78-54 win in the 1984-85 season.

"We only score 70 tonight, about 12 points lower than our average, but the main thing is 56 points (allowed). ... That strengthens Coach Richey's argument that it all starts on the defensive end and we keeping buying in," said Slawson, who finished with 16 points, seven rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocked shots.

"Alex Hunter was a heck of a defender and J.P. Pegues is right on par with him and he's only a sophomore. He's only going to keep getting better, bigger, faster and stronger. ... He cherishes these kind of matchups, which is something you don't see often out of a sophomore."

The victory marked the 100th in the careers of Bothwell and Slawson. Bothwell eclipsed the 1,700-point mark in his career as well. Bothwell's 1,705 points are two shy of Mel Daniel for 10th place on Furman's all-time scoring chart.

The Paladins will next play at Mercer Wednesday at 7 p.m.