Sunday, March 6, 2022

Balanced Paladins knock off Mercer, advance

Alex Hunter had 13 points, including two on this acrobatic layup, to help lead
Furman to an 80-66 win over Mercer Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

ASHEVILLE, N.C. - The No. 2 seed curse is over.

Five players scored in double figures as second-seeded Furman defeated Mercer, 80-66, Saturday in the quarterfinals of the Southern Conference Men's Basketball Tournament. This season marks the Paladins' fourth as the two seed since 2017, but this is the first time they've reached the semifinals via that route. Furman (21-11) will take on No. 3 seed Samford at approximately 6:30 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU with a trip to Monday's championship game up for grabs.

"I'm proud of this group. They handled the game well. It's great to have the (first round) bye, but if the other team has played sometimes they can get in a good rhythm," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "Our guys did a good job of coming out with the right defensive intensity for the majority of the game.

"These two (Mike Bothwell and Conley Garrison) particularly from the perimeter had active hands. They had 12 of our deflections combined. When we were able to get stops and get out in transition, we were really able to stretch the margin at times."

On Friday, seventh-seeded Mercer crushed Western Carolina in the opening round of the tournament. Sometimes that momentum can carry over to the following day when that winning team from the night before faces a team that hasn't played for a week. On Saturday, Furman didn't give that a chance to happen.

It took just 79 seconds for the Paladins to force Mercer's first timeout of the game. That's how long it took for a Jalen Slawson layup, a Marcus Foster steal, a Mike Bothwell layup and a Conley Garrison three-pointer to stake Furman to a 7-0 lead. The Bears (16-17) never got closer than four the rest of the way.

"I have to give credit to coach. This week in practice, we worked on our starts. We played four-minute games right after we warmed up in practice and said, 'we've got to start right.' " said Bothwell. "It even went to how we got the tip on the jump ball. ... If we didn't win the tip, he started us over.

"We knew our start was critical to set the tone for how we want to play. They were coming off a really good game last night and we all watched. It gives a lot of confidence when you come out and kind of throw the first punch."

The biggest sequence of the game happened late in the first half when the Paladins used a stunning amount of steals to take a commanding lead into halftime. It was a 26-21 game with 6:09 left when Foster made a layup. The next three Mercer possessions ended on steals by Foster, Garrison and Alex Hunter. Those steals led to a Bothwell dunk, a Garrett Hien layup and a Foster layup to push the lead to 34-21 with 4:50 left.

J.P. Pegues and Foster had two more steals the rest of the half, giving Furman five in a six-minute stretch, as the Paladins took a 46-27 lead into the half.

"We had four deflections the first 12 minutes of the game and we talked about it. We finished the last eight minutes (of the first half) with 10 deflections. That's what really got the run going," Richey said. "They have more size than we have. We know that. They even played bigger tonight playing some of those guys together, so we knew our speed had to be a big deal.

"The end of the half was critical. That was a big deal when we played so well in Macon. It was a back-and-forth game and we made a run right before halftime that really gave us a boost going into the locker room. We wanted to do that again tonight."

As has sometimes been the case down the stretch of the season, a Furman opponent shot the lights out for a portion of the second half again Saturday. Mercer made seven of its first eight shots after halftime, but Furman's offense played well enough for the Paladins to still lead by 12 at that point.

The Bears got the lead down to 11 at 62-51 with 9:23 left. That may have made some Furman folks think about last season's collapse as the No. 2 seed when the Paladins blew a 13-point lead with less than six minutes left in an overtime loss to VMI in the quarterfinal. But Hunter answered with a three-pointer and then made a gorgeous twisting layup to push the back lead to 16. Mercer never got closer than 14 the rest of the way.

"Our defense slipped a little bit out of halftime," Richey said. "Our leadership did a great job of just settling down and we had some guys make some plays to finish the game. We had a lot of guys step up."

It didn't take anything special to get past this hump. Furman simply did many of the same things it did in two convincing wins over Mercer in the regular season. For veterans like Bothwell, Slawson and Hunter, it had to be a relieving feeling to move a little past the heartache they've experienced in Asheville in the past.

"I think the players that have been on this team before have definitely matured a lot and have learned a lot of lessons. But what's different is this guy to my left (Garrison). We've been saying all year, having him on the court is just a stabilizer," Bothwell said. "J.P. Pegues hadn't been here yet. We knew he was going to show up.

"We've only had three players on our team that have played in big moments in Asheville. All these other guys are here to make a new mark. They're not thinking about what happened in games before. They're just out here trying to get this job done."

Garrison and Slawson each had 15 points, while Bothwell scored 14. Garrison also had four assists. Hunter had 13 points and three steals, while Pegues finished with 10 points and five rebounds in 21 minutes off the bench.

After shooting 66.7 percent in the first half, Furman only made 9-of-24 field goals (37.5 percent)  in the second. A key to maintaining the healthy lead in the second half was the Paladins hitting 13-of-15 free throws. They made 17-of-19 for the game.

Now its on to a rubber match against Samford. Furman opened SoCon play on Dec. 29 by crushing Samford in Greenville, 81-49. The Bulldogs played without All-SoCon first team member Ques Glover that night and it began a 1-6 start in league play for them. In the rematch in Alabama last week, Glover had 22 points in Samford's 83-75 win. That was part of a stretch where the Bulldogs won nine out of 10 games to help them reach their highest finish ever in the SoCon.

"With our leadership having the lessons that we've learned and pouring those in to the people that haven't been here yet and with their energy and excitement to be on this stage, there's definitely a different feeling," Bothwell said. "There's more peace out there instead of the nervousness. We're not scared to lose, but just excited to go try to win."

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