Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Paladins whip Citadel, secure second place

Alex Hunter had 20 points and six assists in Furman's 94-59
win at The Citadel Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

CHARLESTON - The first time Alex Hunter set foot on the McAlister Field House court at The Citadel, he was a freshman on a Furman team that saw a 17-point second half lead disappear in an overtime loss on Jan. 31, 2018. The last time Hunter set foot on that court Saturday, he helped make sure a big second-half lead only got bigger this time and ensured he never lost to the Paladins' oldest rival again.

Hunter had game-highs in points (20), assists (6) and steals (2) with no turnovers as Furman rolled over the Bulldogs, 94-59, for its eighth consecutive win in the series. The victory secured a second-place finish in the Southern Conference for the Paladins (20-11, 12-6) and made Bob Richey the first Furman coach ever to lead four 20-win seasons. The only time Richey's team didn't win 20 games was last year's 16-9 team that had its season shortened by COVID.

"Coming off Wednesday's tough loss, we had to fine tune some things defensively. We honed in on that and it pay dividends. Everybody was out here getting deflections and steals and we got out in transition," Hunter said. "In turn, we all were hitting. It seemed like everybody was hot. Coach told us to just go out there with confidence, play free and have fun."

Saturday marked the second time last week that Furman went on the road to face a bunch of Bulldogs that it had blown out in Greenville earlier this season. Unlike those first meetings, both Samford and Citadel played with their respective leading scorers in the rematch. Much like Samford's Ques Glover did on Wednesday, Citadel's Hayden Brown had a big game Saturday as he posted 17 points, 18 rebounds, three assists and two steals.

Unlike Wednesday - and despite Brown's numbers, Furman's defense showed up Saturday. The Paladins limited the Bulldogs to 36.1 percent shooting, including 23.1 percent from three (6-of-26), in becoming just the fourth team this season to hold Citadel under 60 points. After making only 12 deflections in the loss at Samford Wednesday, Furman had 25 Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Paladins shot 57.1 percent from the floor, including 65.6 percent in the second half (21-of-32). Furman also made 17-of-35 three-pointers (48.6) and had 24 assists. The defensive effort and the offensive numbers was one of a few examples of "cause and effect" that keyed the Paladins' win.

"Twenty-five deflections and 24 assists is Furman basketball, but one precedes the other. You've got to go out there and get the deflections. It's the hard part of the equation, but it fuels the other side," Richey said. "I was really proud of our team. That's one of the most complete games we've had all year.

"There wasn't any panic or anybody flipping out (after Wednesday's loss). We've just got to get back to who we know we can be. ... You can't go out there playing B-minus defense. You've got to give it everything you've got. You've got to put your whole focus on the defensive end of the floor and then just go play free offensively. I thought we got back to that today."

Because freshman Tyrese Hughey played well in his time off the bench at Samford Wednesday, he got more time on Saturday. Hughey helped Furman take a 41-29 lead into halftime as he led the Paladins in plus-minus in the first half at 19-plus. That led to him starting the second half and the freshman finished with 10 points on 5-of-5 shooting and seven rebounds in his 17-plus minutes.

Hughey starting the second half seemed to inspire starter Marcus Foster when he checked back in. Foster found Hunter for a three, then ended Citadel's possession with a steal that led to a Garrett Hien layup. The Bulldogs' next possession ended on a Foster rebound with led to another Hunter three. Facing a Citadel team that has rallied from double-digit deficits to win five games this season, that 8-0 spurt in a 56-second span pushed Furman's lead to 58-38.

Later in the half, Foster scored eight consecutive points in a stretch of just 62 seconds to seal the win. He finished with 13 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals in 20 minutes of action. After working his way into the starting lineup earlier this season primarily due to his outstanding defense, that defensive level may have dipped a bit but his offensive production has surged. After averaging 6.8 points per game in non-conference play, Foster is averaging 10 per game against SoCon competition.

"We had a couple of missed assignments, made the change, and Tyrese started just grabbing balls. Physically, he's ahead of where most freshmen are right now. He plays hard and I trust him," Richey said. "That also lit a fire under Marcus a little bit. Iron sharpens iron. ... Marcus hardly played last year. The jump he's made in 365 days is phenomenal. He's shooting the ball at a high level and his release is gorgeous.

"We had two times today where I was sending a sub in and the guy going in said, 'are you sure? He just hit a shot. Shouldn't we let him stay?' That's just teamwork, chemistry and guys that care for one another. I'm just really proud of our demeanor and how we came out here today."

Because of the focused work Furman did over the first 30 minutes of the game to build a comfortable lead, the last 10 minutes seemed to be like recess on the playground. It was just a confident team out there having a ball. Nobody had more fun than Jalen Slawson, who may have set a record for highlights of someone who only scored six points.

Furman led 69-44 with 10:13 left when Citadel got a fast break. While Slawson trailed on the play, he was eyeing the Bulldogs' Tyler Moffe like a portly fellow staring at the last slice of pizza. As Moffe went in for a layup, Slawson soared in and swatted the ball off the backboard. Officials ruled goaltending, but they may have been duped by just how far Slawson had to go to get there. Replay showed it was very close. There was no way the ball was going down, so it could've only been ruled to have already touched the backboard.

Less than two minutes later, there was no doubt Slawson rejected Moffe's layup this time. Hughey grabbed the rebound and passed to Hunter, who got it to Conley Garrison. While Garrison was racing towards the three-point line, Slawson threw his left hand as he crossed midcourt. As Garrison neared the paint, he had somehow noticed Slawson's signal and tossed a perfect lob to the basket. Slawson swarmed to the bucket and slammed it home for arguably the biggest highlight of the season.

"My brother's been a great lob thrower since I was a baby. I've done it so long, I really don't think there's one I can't catch," Slawson said. "I just tell my guys, 'put it up by the rim and I'll go get it.' Conley made a spectacular pass. I love that kid to death.

"It's all just seeing the play develop. I had Mike (Bothwell) in front of me and being one of the best guards in the league, he commands a lot of attention. I knew the defense was going to be focused on him and I knew that would open a path for me."

With 4:39 left and Furman leading 86-55, Slawson was at the top of the key looking to the right wing at Foster, who had just scored those eight points in a row. With his eyes focused on Foster, Slawson flipped the ball over his head to Bothwell for a layup. It was Slawson's second no-look pass for a layup in the half and was a perfect way for the starters to exit as Richey quickly signaled timeout.

In the final minutes, Richey went deep into his bench. Being in a game for possibly the final time, senior walk-on Robert Swanson made the first blocked shot of his career then grabbed the loose ball for his first rebound this season. Freshman James Repass closed out the scoring with his first points since the North Carolina game.

In addition to his six points, Slawson had six assists, five rebounds, two (official) blocks, a steal and no turnovers. Bothwell finished with 19 points on 6-of-8 shooting, including 4-of-6 from three, and just one turnover. Hunter hit 6-of-11 threes, while Foster made 3-of-4, Garrison hit 2-of-4 and Joe Anderson sank 2-of-5.

Next up for the Paladins is the SoCon Tournament in Asheville. As the No. 2 seed Furman will play in the quarterfinals Saturday at 6 p.m. against either seventh-seeded Mercer or 10th-seeded Western Carolina. The Bears and Catamounts play Friday at approximately 7:30 p.m.

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