Saturday, January 30, 2021

Balanced attack gets Furman on track

Furman point guard Alex Hunter had 16 points, five assists, four rebounds and no
turnovers in the Paladins' 75-69 win at Western Carolina. Photo courtesy of Furman

All five Furman starters - well, usual starters - scored at least 12 points Saturday afternoon as the Paladins avoided its first three-game losing streak in five years with a 75-69 win at Western Carolina.

After suffering its first two Southern Conference losses last week, Furman (11-5, 5-2) seemed destined to have to stew on those for awhile because of COVID issues within the program. But after negative tests on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Furman was able to make up its game at Western Carolina. Saturday's game was originally postponed from Jan. 6 because of COVID issues with the Catamounts.

The Paladins looked a team that was savoring the chance to play as they jumped out to a 14-3 lead eight minutes in. While that was Furman's biggest lead of the day, Western Carolina (7-9, 0-7) could never get closer than two the rest of the way as Furman ran its streak in the series to 10 consecutive wins.

"Our connection on both ends was improved and we played with good energy. We had strong faces. We didn't get flustered by calls, we just played the game," Furman coach Bob Richey said on the Furman Radio Network's postgame show. "It was a good old Furman basketball game with our top five guys in double figures. ... Everybody made plays today - critical plays on both ends to get the win."

Coming off a rough game at East Tennessee State last Saturday, Jalen Slawson was replaced in the starting lineup by freshman guard Joe Anderson. At the first game stop 32 seconds in though, Slawson replaced Anderson and quickly sparked the Paladins.

Slawson was a big part of perhaps the game's biggest sequence just 90 seconds in. After a Slawson turnover led to what appeared to be a breakaway dunk for Western's Xavier Cork, Slawson raced down Cork and blocked his shot from behind. Clay Mounce gathered the rebound and found Alex Hunter for a 3-pointer to tie the game 3-3 as the Catamounts' lone lead lasted all of 25 seconds.

"We call those TGHT plays - the game honors toughness. We have a bad turnover and he could've easily said 'aw shucks, they're going to go lay it in,' but man he stayed with it and blocked that ball," Richey said. "And the game usually honors it. We go down and hit that three and never trail again."

That block was a sign of things to come defensively for Furman as Western had only two fast break points and was held to 41 percent shooting for the game. Slawson finished with 12 points, nine rebounds, four assists, a steal and only the one block officially, but it felt like more as he altered plenty of the Cats' shots. Perhaps in a sign of trying to do too much, the only negative on Slawson's stat line was six turnovers.

"It looked like a message, but this was a conversation all week. Ironically enough, Slawson and I had adjoining rooms last night. I knocked on his door, came in and we talked for an hour," Richey said. "He's got so many God-given abilities, not just in basketball, but in his ability to lead and motivate people is really incredible.

"He's got to do it in the hard moments, when things aren't going well for him or for our team. He led from tip to buzzer today and it was tremendous. ... I told him he had half our turnovers, but I still love him. He just played a beautiful game today."

Much like Furman could never seemingly stretch a nine-point lead into a comfortable double-digit margin, Western could never seemingly get the lead under five. On the rare times it did, the Paladins always answered.

Western's Tyler McGhie cut the lead to 38-36 on a 3-pointer with 16:44 left before Noah Gurley hit a 3-pointer for Furman 23 seconds later. On consecutive Catamount possessions around the 10-minute mark, they cut the lead to four twice and three once. Those were answered on jumpers by Hunter and Mounce before a three-point play by Gurley.

The Cats cut the lead to 62-57 with 5:56 left when Mounce got a layup 24 seconds later. Western cut the lead to 71-67 on a Mason Faulkner 3-pointer with 1:26 left before Gurley hit a jumper 19 seconds later.

"We answered bells with different guys all day long," Richey said. "To go on the road after dealing with some of the adversity and get our spirit right was big. Even in those tight times, we had a good control about us."

Gurley led Furman with 17 points, three assists, two blocked shots and two steals. Hunter had 16 points, five assists, four rebounds and no turnovers in 35 minutes, while Mounce and Mike Bothwell each scored 13. After shooting just 41.9 percent in the first half, the Paladins shot 68 percent (17-of-25) in the second half including 4-of-8 from beyond the arc. Saturday marked the first time this season that Furman shot 40 percent from three in a SoCon game as it was 9-of-21 (42.9 percent).

Faulkner, who was averaging 15.9 points per game entering Saturday had 14 on 4-of-12 shooting. Western's Matt Halvorsen, who was averaging 14.9 points per game, was held to five. Halvorsen, who has the 13th most career 3-pointers in SoCon history, was shooting 42.8 percent from beyond the arc this season before going 1-of-5 Saturday. Cork, who was averaging 14.3 points per game and a SoCon-best 65.9 field goal percentage, had two points on 1-of-3 shooting with three turnovers and four fouls in 17 minutes.

Unless another game is added, Furman is scheduled for another week off. The Paladins are scheduled to return to action next Saturday, hosting Wofford at 6 p.m.

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