Friday, January 21, 2022

Depth and defense help Furman rout Western

Freshman J.P. Pegues hit six three-pointers in Furman's 88-50
win over Western Carolina. Photo courtesy of Furman

At Timmons Arena Wednesday night, Western Carolina's leading scorer this season had twice as many points at Furman's leading scorer. In some places, that could spell doom for the home team. In the Paladins' case though, depth and defense made it merely an afterthought.

Led by J.P. Pegues' career-high 18 points, Furman's bench contributed 34 points as the Paladins crushed the Catamounts, 88-50. Furman held Western to 34 percent shooting from the field, although that stat is a bit misleading. The Catamounts went 6-for-6 from the floor over the final 3:11 after shooting 25.5 percent up to that point. It took Western 30 attempts - and more than 21 game minutes - to make its first six shots Wednesday.

"I thought we played a complete game on both ends of the floor. Everybody that played did a good job of contributing," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "I could go through all nine guys (of the current rotation) and think of key moments they had.

"A lot of people were probably wondering why we continue to give the Pegues the minutes we've been giving him. The reason is tonight. We knew there was a possibility of that happening at any point. I've been here a long time and seen a lot of good guards. I'm telling you right now, he's going to be one of them. He's going to be special."

Furman (13-7, 5-2 Southern Conference) leading scorer Jalen Slawson, who entered averaging 15.6 points per game, had three points on a three-pointer that pushed Furman's lead to 80-38 with 4:06 left. That was just his second - and final - shot of the night. As Slawson often does, he found other ways to make an impact with 10 rebounds, five assists and a plus-minus scoring margin of plus-33 in his 24:58 on the court.

Meanwhile, Catamounts' leading scorer Nicholas Robinson had six points on 2-of-9 shooting, including 0-of-4 from three. The grad transfer from Valparaiso entered Wednesday averaging 15.1 points per game. As a team, Western (8-11, 2-4) went just 4-of-23 (17.4 percent) from beyond the arc.

"I was really proud of Jalen Slawson. There are ways to affect the game other than scoring," Richey said. "When you buy into that and just commit to doing the things that win, you're able to have the performance he had tonight. He had a ton of deflections, was all over the place defensively and was really able to help our tempo."

The Paladins getting to the 88-point mark was fairly amazing considering the fact that they trailed 8-7 at the under-12 media timeout in the first half. With Furman not having any luck in getting threes to fall early on, Mike Bothwell got aggressive out of the timeout. He had a pair of layups to start a 9-0 run that he ended with a three.

It was a 16-10 game before Alex Hunter knocked down a three with 5:36 left in the half. That's when the Catamounts' bad night escalated quickly. On Furman's next possession, Joe Anderson flew down the court and made a perfect no-look pass to Hunter cutting to the basket. Hunter fired a pass to an open Pegues for a corner three. The electrifying sequence brought the crowd to its feet.

"I think the crowd definitely played a part (in my night). All the noise and energy kind of lifts up everybody," Pegues said. "And we stuck to our core of being good teammates. Like Coach Richey always says, 'the ball will find whoever it needs to find if we stick to our principles.' "

After Pegues' first made three, Furman's next three possessions ended with: an Anderson three; an Anderson three; a Pegues three. That 16-10 Paladins lead became a 31-10 lead in a span of 2:11.

Furman took a 33-16 lead into halftime. Western made 5-of-28 shots (17.9 percent) in the opening half. It was the fewest points allowed in a half by the Paladins since Jan. 25, 2017. On that night, Furman led the Catamounts 40-14 at the break and went on to an 85-37 win at Timmons.

"I'm really proud of this group for keeping our defensive intensity when we weren't hitting shots early on," said Bothwell, who celebrated his 22nd birthday with a game-high 26 points. "When it came time for us to start making shots, we didn't have to come from behind because our defensive energy didn't slip."

Slow starts to the second half have been a problem this season for the Paladins, including last Saturday's heartbreaking two-point loss at Chattanooga. That wasn't the case against Western. Conley Garrison opened the second half with back-to-back threes. Hunter and Bothwell hit threes and another Garrison three with 14:48 left capped a 16-6 run that pushed Furman's lead 49-22.

"We've been watching and trying to figure out this problem in those first four minutes after halftime. ... It was neat tonight to keep winning those four-minute battles and continue to push the margin," Richey said. "I thought we played better in the second half overall. It's good to see growth there. When we have all nine of those guys ready to play and they all contribute, we're able to stay fresh and it makes a big impact.

"We ask these guys to run the floor, fly around on defense and cut on offense. It's an exhausting style of play if you're trying to do it really hard, so we've got to continue to trust our depth."

After that initial flurry to open the second half, reserves went back to work and the Paladins didn't miss a beat. Furman took it's biggest lead of the night at 88-44 on Pegues' final shot with 1:13 left. The freshman made 6-of-9 three-pointers, and also had four rebounds, three assists and no turnovers.

Pegues is the eighth different Paladin to score at least 15 points in a game this season. A total of 11 players on Furman's roster have scored 15 in a game. Jonny Lawrence and Colin Kenney, who've each been sidelined by injuries this season, and Jaylon Pugh all had at least 15-point games last season.

"The fun part of this team is that you never know when it's going to be your time like it was for J.P. tonight," Bothwell said. "We know that any night can be your night because of our ball movement and the way teams scheme against other players in other ways. That helps guys keep working to stay ready for their moment."

Garrison also reached double figures as he had 12 points on four threes. Hunter finished with nine points on three threes, five rebounds, five assists and two steals. Anderson had nine points on three threes and three steals off the bench. After starting the night 2-of-13 from three, the Paladins made 19-of-31 the rest of the way.

Furman (13-7, 5-2 Southern Conference) won the rebounding battle 42-32 and 10 different Paladins had at least one assist. Furman finished with 25 assists on its 29 field goals, and also had nine steals and nine turnovers. From the 12:24 mark of the first half to the 2:56 mark of the second, the Paladins had just two turnovers.

Furman will next play at Wofford on Saturday at 7 p.m.

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