Saturday, January 16, 2021

Paladins top ETSU, sit alone atop SoCon

Mike Bothwell scored a career-high 32 points in Furman's
78-66 win over ETSU Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

The spotlight has never been too big for Mike Bothwell. The Furman junior proved that last season with multiple final-second, game-winning shots. He proved it again on Saturday. Playing in a rare nationally televised game at Timmons Arena via ESPNU, Bothwell scored a career-high 32 points to lead Furman to a 78-66 win over East Tennessee State.

The victory leaves Furman as the only Southern Conference team without a league loss this season. The Paladins (10-3, 4-0) have now won 19 straight games at Timmons Arena and have gone 70-11 there since the start of the 2015-16 season. That includes a 40-5 mark in conference games.

"That was a great defensive effort in the last 12 minutes of the game particularly. ... We had zero kills (three consecutive defensive stops) for the first 28 minutes of this game, then we had three in the last 12," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "We did a good job on the backboard, which we knew we had to and won that by five (35-30 rebounding advantage).

"Mike Bothwell was just phenomenal all day. Jalen Slawson's energy was incredible. Noah Gurley didn't have the scoring game that we know he's capable of, but he fought to stay in the game mentally and made some great plays in the second half. ... It was a good team win and a great atmosphere at Timmons."

It was ETSU's first game in two weeks following a positive COVID-19 case, and it played without leading scorer Ledarrius Brewer (16.3 points per game). Despite all that, it was a typical back-and-forth battle you'd expect from the two winningest teams in the Southern Conference over the last six seasons. The Buccaneers have 73 league wins since the start of the 2015-16 season, while Saturday was Furman's 70th SoCon win since then.

There were nine ties in the first half and no team led by more than four points until ETSU (6-5, 2-1) popped off an 8-0 run to take a 52-47 lead with 12:17 left. The Paladins only made three 3-pointers in the second half, but each one was huge starting with Clay Mounce's answer to that run 14 seconds later.

Mounce's three started a flurry of scoring, including seven consecutive points from Bothwell that gave Furman a 61-58 lead with 8:47 left. One of Richey's best moves came seconds later when he gave Bothwell a breather. That's when Marcus Foster came in and made the kind of contribution that won't wow anyone who only saw the boxscore, but was a big factor in the game.

Foster had his shot blocked, but went up between two ETSU defenders to grab the rebound and draw the foul. He hit one free throw, but next time down he again grabbed the rebound of his own miss. That led to a Jalen Slawson layup that pushed Furman's lead to 64-60 with 6:52 left.

"We've challenged those (bench) guys a little bit and shown them some things that outside sources have said about them just because we want them to understand to be ready to play and come with an edge about them," Richey said. "They're good players and Marcus Foster is a redshirt freshman who's going to be really good. He's just getting started. He missed a month of (preseason) practice, then had another little injury recently. The neat thing I like about him is that he always answers the bell."

Alex Hunter replaced Foster with 5:23 left and that move also immediately paid off. On a day when Furman big men Noah Gurley and Slawson led the team in assists, Gurley found Hunter for a jumper before Slawson found Hunter for a 3-pointer on the next possession to push the lead to 71-64 with 3:49 left. Bothwell provided the dagger with 1:26 left when his 3-pointer made it a double-digit lead at 76-66.

"The key was just stringing those kills late. We like to get three stops in a row because we feel like we can go on runs off those," Bothwell said. "Not trading baskets just shifted the game late.

"Since we got back from Citadel (Wednesday), Coach Richey was telling us this game wasn't for us. This game was to show everybody watching us on ESPNU for the first time what our brand of basketball is about. This game was for Jordan Lyons, Matt Rafferty, Daniel Fowler and all those guys that came before us. I think we showed a great brand of Furman basketball."

In addition to Bothwell's 32 points, Hunter finished with 15 and Mounce had 14 along with nine rebounds. Slawson had 11 points, three assists and two blocks. Gurley, who entered averaging 15.3 points per game, didn't scratch in the points column but finished with a career-best six assists and two steals.

The Paladins shot 62.5 percent from the floor in the second half, including a 12-of-15 showing on shots inside the arc. Furman outscored ETSU 40-28 in the paint and 18-8 on second-chance points, despite having one fewer offensive rebound (12 to ETSU's 13).

"It felt like the lid was on the basket in the first half. We couldn't make some wide open threes," Richey said. "As soon as we started playing the game at the level we needed to effort-wise and from a defensive connection standpoint, ironically enough, we started making some shots including some big threes down the stretch.

"I'm really proud of Noah. He didn't force it. We all know how good Noah is. This is actually a positive for him to go out and show that decision making. ... They were really digging hard on his dribble. A lot of teams are going to play him like that just to get the ball out. When he gets performances like that passing on film, it's going to make people second-guess that a little bit." 

Furman is scheduled to play at VMI on Wednesday before a rematch with the Bucs next Saturday at ETSU.

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