Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Furman rolls to first win at Wofford in 11 years

Jalen Slawson dunks during Furman's 75-50
win at Wofford. Photo courtesy of Furman

SPARTANBURG - The Furman men's basketball team has rewritten the school's record book over the past few seasons, accomplishing plenty of things it had never done before. The one person who's had the longest ticket for the Paladins' ride from the bottom to the top of the Southern Conference has been Bob Richey.

In his 11th season with the Paladins and fifth as head coach, there was one thing left that Richey had never experienced prior to Saturday night. Over the past few seasons, the Furman-Wofford basketball rivalry has evolved into the best in the SoCon. It's been filled with emotion, respectful intensity, electric crowds and talented players and coaches. Some matchups have ended on heartbreaking or thrilling final-second shots, depending on if you're dressed in purple or black. But the one result not seen in more than a decade was a Furman win on Wofford's court.

Until Saturday night.

There were no last-second deciding shots this night though. Hopes of a dramatic finish were pretty much buried under an avalanche of Furman three-pointers less than halfway through the second half. While none of those previous matchups mattered once the ball was tipped off Saturday, it seemed as if the Paladins unleashed 11 years worth of frustration out as they cruised to a 75-50 win.

Months after the Furman football team crushed the Terriers for it's first win in Spartanburg since 2006, it was the basketball team's first win there since Jan. 24, 2011. That 2010-11 season was Richey's final one as an assistant at Charleston Southern before coming to Furman.

"They've obviously played well against us in this series. Coming into this, you want to be good emotionally but you want to be in a mindset where you compete the right way," Richey said. "I know how important this game is, but I wanted our team to be comfortable just being us. We came in here as the No. 1 defense, No. 1 shooting and No. 1 ball movement team in the league. Just trust that.

"I feel like sometimes we've come in here and wanted it too bad or listened to too much of the noise surrounding it. ... I think our guys did a good job tonight of just staying in the present."  

For the second consecutive game, Furman followed up a terrific opening half with an even better second half. After making 9-of-22 three-pointers in the first half to take a 37-27 lead into the break, the Paladins made 9-of-15 in the second half. Furman shot 59.1 percent from the floor overall in the second half, while holding Wofford to 33.3 percent (7-of-21). For the game, the Paladins had more threes (18) than the Terriers had field goals (17-of-45).

It was the lowest point total this season for Wofford, which entered Saturday on a three-game winning streak. The Terriers (12-8, 4-4) scored 87, 84 and 89 points, respectively, in those three games.

"Everybody loves to talk about our offense. Our offense is a lot of fun and I respect that, but we're the top defense in the league right now," Richey said. "A big message to our team this week was that we have to start taking pride in that. This was team defense tonight.

"They've got a tough system to guard. They really space you, move well and pass it well. They've got an interior presence and shooters around it. It's not an easy assignment and I credit our guys for being willing to play as hard as they had to for as long as they had to tonight."

On a few recent trips to Wofford, Furman seemingly came out tight and would have to fight to dig itself out of an early hole. That was not the case Saturday. Each of Furman's "big three" of Jalen Slawson, Alex Hunter and Mike Bothwell knocked down a three-pointer and then reserve Joe Anderson drained one to stake the Paladins to a 12-5 lead five minutes in. Furman had seven rebounds in those first five minutes, four of which were offensive.

Then Slawson produced 27 seconds of thrilling basketball. He poked the ball away on defense, got it back and dribbled to the three-point line. Then it was just two steps inside the arc for liftoff as he soared to the basket for a thunderous dunk. Slawson started down the Wofford student section, turned and yelled something to his teammates on the bench, and still managed to get back and block the Terriers' next shot.

"I didn't know if I was going to dunk it or not. I kind of took off and was in the air when I realized I was high enough to dunk it," Slawson said. "This game's important to us, our university, our faculty and staff, our fellow students.

"We just wanted to come out and put that on display for 40 minutes. ... You can't do something for 40 minutes if you don't start the right way."

That helped Furman push it's lead to 16-9. While it seemed to be a momentous flurry, a media timeout stopped play after the blocked shot landed out of bounds. Coming out of the timeout, Wofford went on a 7-0 run to tie the game. Nineteen seconds later, Marcus Foster answered with a three and Furman never relinquished the lead.

B.J. Mack's putback cut the Paladins lead to 25-22 with 5:43 left, but Slawson hit a three 19 seconds later. That started a 12-3 run over a five-minute stretch as Furman took command.

Max Klesmit, who was coming off a 27-point performance in Wofford's win over Citadel, had his only points of the game Saturday on a three-pointer with 18:24 left that cut the Paladins' lead to 39-32. Furman responded with a 15-0 run over the next six minutes that began with a Bothwell layup and ended with a Bothwell three. The Paladins never led by fewer than 19 the rest of the way.

Slawson put the cherry on top of his performance when he simply held the ball as the shot clock expired before knocking down a step-back three to push Furman's lead to 29.

Eight different Paladins had threes, led by Slawson's 4-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc. Eight also had at least one assist as Furman finished with 18 to up its NCAA-leading total to 373 this season.

"When you've got a group that believes in one another like this, you've just trust that you're all going out for the mission," Richey said. "You could feel the cohesion tonight."

In addition to his 18 points, Slawson had five rebounds and three blocks. Bothwell had 15 points and five rebounds, Foster had 10 points and five rebounds, while Hunter had 10 points and four assists.

After getting 34 points from it's bench in Furman's 88-50 win over Western Carolina last Wednesday, the bench had 19 points on Saturday. Garrett Hien and J.P. Pegues led the reserves with eight points apiece. In last season's 74-73 loss at Wofford, the Paladins had just five bench points.

"Our depth fresh is better than our starters tired. That's a credit to our assistant coaches and strength coaches. We've got to put these guys out there because they're good players," Richey said. "It's allowed us to play faster and harder. From a philosophical view, it's allowed us to play more connected because you have more guys feeling like they're engaged in what's going on."

Mack was the lone double-figure scorer for Wofford as he had 14 points and nine rebounds. It was the Terriers most lopsided home loss since a 79-50 loss to College of Charleston on Jan. 26, 2013.

Furman returns to action Wednesday, hosting VMI at 7 p.m.

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