Saturday, January 29, 2022

Fresh Paladins pull away late to put away VMI

Mike Bothwell drives for a layup against VMI. Bothwell had 14 points, eight
rebounds and four assists in Furman's 79-64 win. Photo courtesy of Furman

Furman men's basketball coach Bob Richey has noted all season that typically the team that plays the best in the final segment of the game, wins it. Of late, he's also noted just how effective the Paladins' bench has become. On Wednesday night, each of those thoughts played out and helped Furman snap a three-game losing streak against VMI.

The Paladins outscored the Keydets 18-3 over the final 4:51 to turn a tie game into a 79-64 victory at Timmons Arena. After scoring 34 and 19 points, respectively, in blowout wins over Western Carolina and Wofford last week, Furman's bench had just five points. But its role proved just as significant as the past two games for how fresh Paladin starters were down the stretch. Furman reserves logged 49 minutes and 32 seconds, while VMI's bench - which had no points - played a total of 31 minutes and 26 seconds.

"The reason we've decided to go to our depth is because, first of all, those guys have been practicing and deserve the minutes. Secondly, it's because we were seeing a trend late in games ... where we just didn't play with attention to detail and we looked fatigued," Richey said. "We're 22 games in this season and we've got a lot of close game experience. In every single one of those, the team that's played the best the last four minutes has won. You've got to be conditioned to be able to do that.

"I've been wanting to keep everybody 30 minutes or less. We had a few guys at 32 (minutes played) tonight, but that's a lot better than 35-37. Even if it's 32-35, that three minutes of game clock rest is 10-12 (real time) minutes. That's a long period of time to rest and I thought the game tempo and depth was a big deal tonight."

Furman (15-7, 7-2 Southern Conference) led by as many as 11 in the first half and 39-30 at the break. VMI clawed its way back in it in the second half and took its first lead since the 14:04 mark of the first half when Honor Huff hit a pair of free throws with 6:20 left. The game was tied 61-61 with 4:51 remaining when Conley Garrison's three-pointer started the Paladins game-sealing run.

Garrison's three also ignited the game's biggest sequence. On VMI's ensuing possession, standout center Jake Stephens had his layup blocked by Jalen Slawson. The ball was headed out of bounds and looked to go back to VMI before Mike Bothwell soared in and saved it back to Slawson. An offensive rebound by Garrison on the other end led to a three-point play by Bothwell to make it 67-61. On the Keydets' next possession, Bothwell snatched the ball clean out of Stephens' hands for a steal that led to a free throw by Marcus Foster. Bothwell then had a block on VMI's next shot and appeared to have a jump ball going for an offensive rebound, but was mistakenly called for a foul.

All of that activity came on a night when Bothwell was 6-of-16 from the floor, including 1-of-7 from three, as he had numerous shots go in and out. He finished with 14 points, eight rebounds and four assists. 

"Mike was phenomenal. The best thing about him tonight was that he didn't allow his missed shots to impact his spirit," Richey said. "That play he made on the pick-and-roll coverage on the steal (of Stephens) was incredible. That was a layup that he erased and then put us in transition. Those are game-changing plays.

"We were able to close the game with our best defense of the night. We knew we were going to get tested and we did. For them to take the lead there and for us to respond and finish the game the way we did is a great sign for our group."

After a tough layup made by Garrison, Slawson hit a big three over Stephens to push Furman's lead to 73-64 with 1:35 left. The Paladins hit 6-of-8 free throws the rest of the way to close it out. Over the final 4:31 of the game. the Keydets (11-10, 4-5) went 0-for-9 from the floor - with five shots blocked, and 3-of-6 from the foul line.

Furman's defensive effort down the stretch was all the more impressive considering that VMI entered Wednesday leading the SoCon in scoring (80.6 points per game) and shooting (49.5 field goal percentage) in league play.

"At the beginning of the year, we (starters) were playing upwards of 35 minutes a night. We don't think that's sustainable for our style of play. Our bench guys being able to step up and grow up quickly has been huge," said Slawson, who finished with 21 points, nine rebounds, four steals and three blocks. "I absolutely have felt more fresh at the end of games the past couple of weeks."

In a battle of the only two teams in the country with more than 250 made three-pointers this season, the Paladins hit 14-of-41 while the Keydets made 8-of-23. It was the second-lowest total number of threes in a game for VMI this season. Furman had 19 assists on its 28 field goals to remain second nationally with 392 assists this season, four fewer than Belmont.

Garrison helped Furman's first half push as he scored 14 of his game-high 22 points before halftime. The 6-foot-1 guard was also a key in Furman winning the rebounding battle, 47-32, which included 18 offensive boards for the Paladins. Garrison had eight boards, including six offensive. as well as four assists. Alex Hunter had 10 points and five assists, while Foster had seven points, six rebounds and three blocks also for the Paladins.

"It was huge for us guards to crack down and get those boards, especially the way we were fronting Stephens," Garrison said. "Offensive rebounding is really important to our game. We get a lot of threes up, so there's a lot of long misses. If we can create those extra possessions, we think we're good enough shooters to make a lot of them."

Stephens led VMI with 20 points and eight rebounds, but was held to just five points after halftime. Kamdyn Curfman, who's third in the country in made three-pointers, had half of the Keydets' total as he went 4-of-8 from beyond the arc and finished with 16 points. Trey Bonham, who has been a thorn in Furman's side the last two seasons, had 11 points, six rebounds and six assists.

Furman returns to action Saturday at Mercer at 6 p.m.

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