Saturday, February 19, 2022

Bothwell, Hunter push Paladins past Western

Alex Hunter made seven three-pointers in Furman's 103-85 win
at Western Carolina Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

CULLOWHEE, N.C. - When life gets rough, a trip to the mountains can turn out to be therapeutic. On Wednesday night, Furman showed that could apply for basketball teams as well. Mike Bothwell got aggressive and Alex Hunter got his shooting groove back as the Paladins snapped a three-game losing streak with a 103-85 win at Western Carolina.

On a night that Furman hit 20-of-23 free throws, Bothwell connected on 11-of-13 and finished with a game-high 25 points. Meanwhile, Hunter scored 23 points as he made 7-of-14 three-pointers in a building where he's used to stroking the three. That shooting effort gave Hunter 20 threes in 36 attempts in his career at Western's Ramsey Center.

"I don't know what it is about this building, but I always seem to shoot well here," Hunter said. "I'm just glad to get a win."

While Western Carolina is in last place in the Southern Conference and Furman (18-10, 10-5) ran its winning streak in the series to 13, Paladins coach Bob Richey wasn't taking anything for granted Wednesday. All three of the Catamounts' SoCon wins came on Wednesday nights in Cullowhee. Western (9-19, 3-12) was 4-0 in midweek home games this season prior to this week.

"I don't know if there's a rhythm to that, but we did not take this game lightly whatsoever. They beat Chattanooga, ETSU and Citadel in here, so we knew we had to be ready to play," Richey said. "I think our group did a good job of not worrying about all the noise and just focusing on a way to go win this game tonight. We put all our energy on that."

Some of what ailed Furman during the losing skid was a low level of energy, poor rebounding especially on offense, and simply missing open shots. On Wednesday, the Paladins found cures for those right out of the gate.

On Furman's first two offensive possessions, there were three offensive rebounds. After Bothwell got a layup to end the second possession, he drilled a three-pointer off a feed from Marcus Foster the next time down. Western's ensuing possession ended on a block by Jalen Slawson. In transition, Foster hit Slawson, who drew a shooting foul and made both free throws. Slawson found Conley Garrison for an open three which forced a Catamounts' timeout just 3:08 into the game as Furman led 10-0.

That lead grew to 42-15 with 7:15 remaining in the first half. At that point, six different Paladins had threes and they were 8-of-12 from beyond the arc as a team. After making 21 threes against the Catamounts at Timmons Arena earlier this season, Furman finished 15-of-36 (41.7 percent) Wednesday. The Paladins made just 21-of-81 (25.9 percent) over the previous three games. Hunter, Furman's all-time three-point leader, was just 4-of-15 from three in those games.

After shooting a flatter shot it seems lately, Hunter's attempts Wednesday seemed to have more of an arc. The building may have something to do with the makes, but Richey believes Hunter may have simply stopped overthinking things.

"I told him in the pregame, 'you've been in the gym all summer. You've trained for these moments. You've got to quit analyzing and evaluating your shot. You've just got to go trust it. Just go shoot the ball and I promise you're going to make half of them,' " Richey said. "I'm just proud of him. That was a good response and our team needed that. When Alex Hunter's playing well, that's a different gear for us."

Wednesday's game was an odd one at times in different ways. Most lopsided games don't see the teams combine for 44 free throws, but Wednesday's did. Nicholas Robinson, the Catamounts' leader in scoring, rebounding and steals, checked out less than three minutes in and never returned. Western's Vonterius Woolbright, who had been suspended since his last appearance in a game on Jan. 29, had 13 points off the bench.

After starting 6-of-19 from the field, Western made 14 of its next 18 field goals but could never get closer than 11 points the rest of the way. Furman only shot 47.9 percent from the floor, but grabbed offensive rebounds on 20 of its 37 missed shots. The Paladins, who started out with a 19-4 edge in rebounding in building that 27-point lead, won the rebounding battle, 41-28.

"We came out with an element of freedom that was needed and the ball was moving. Defensively, we did a much better job in the first half than the second half, but we were able to push that margin up there pretty quick and got on top of the game," Richey said. "We know we haven't lost a game this year when we've won the glass. So we've got to really emphasize it and I was really disappointed in our offensive crash in the Chattanooga game.

"We watched every single missed shot from that game on Monday and went through each person's job in terms of rebounding. Tonight, we chased balls and got 20 of them."

After scoring 18 points off the bench against Western in the first meeting this season, freshman J.P. Pegues had 15 off the bench Wednesday. Garrison was the other Paladin in double figures with 13 points and six rebounds. On his birthday with his family in attendance, Garrison also had a spectacular putback tip-in that gave him 2,000 points in his collegiate career. Slawson finished with eight points and eight rebounds.

"Pegues is going to be so good. That's why I'm trying to get him more minutes," Richey said. "We've got two fifth-year senior guards we're going to lose and I think the more experience he and Joe (Anderson) can get, the more that they're going to be able to carry a lot of those minutes."

Next up for Furman is the home finale Saturday, when the Paladins face rival Wofford at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena. Tip-off is set for noon.

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