|Marcus Foster had 23 points and eight rebounds in Furman's
85-62 win over VMI Thursday. Photo courtesy of Furman
Much like basketball teams do, many players go through the ebbs and flows of a season. Furman's Marcus Foster seems to have had an entire season's worth already and we haven't even turned the calendar to 2023 yet. The junior started the first four games this season, came off the bench for the next three, started the next four and has come off the bench for the last three.
In Thursday's Southern Conference opener, Foster showed that it really doesn't matter where you start as long as you do what it takes to reach your desired destination of a victory. Foster knocked down 7-of-12 three-pointers on his way to a career-high 23-point night as the Paladins rolled past VMI, 85-62. Foster also had eight rebounds, two assists, no turnovers and played the kind of defense that's been a staple for him since he arrived at Furman. That defensive effort resonated throughout the team.
"I thought that was our best on-ball defensive performance of the year and man, I'm thankful because we spent a lot of time on it since we got back from Christmas. I just thought we took more pride in keeping the ball in front. (VMI coach) Andrew (Wilson) has done a phenomenal job with that team. I don't know if it's referenced enough how much they lost. ... They've got four freshmen out there and (Sean) Conway," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "They've shot as many threes as anybody in the country. ... They average almost 30 three attempts a game and we held them to 17 attempts (five made) tonight. So we we're able to cut their volume down almost a third and did a great job on Conway.
"I told Marcus today, 'you're gonna you're gonna have a coming out party tonight and it's going to be because of how you prepared these last two days.' Not only did he make threes, but his defensive effort was incredible."
The Paladins (10-4, 1-0) got off to a rough start. By the first media timeout at the 15:56 mark, they were 0-for-4 from three, had two turnovers and trailed 6-3. Coming out of that timeout, Mike Bothwell - a career 82 percent foul shooter - missed a pair of free throws. But also coming out of that timeout, was Foster and Tyrese Hughey entering the game. That duo instantly sparked the offense.
Given Furman's start, the bitterly cold spell that Greenville endured since the last game prior to Christmas must have metaphorically froze the rim. Hughey was wise enough to fire up a three-pointer off the backboard to shake off all that ice as it fell through the net to tie the game at 6-6.
"No, I didn't," Hughey said with a smile when asked if he called "bank."
Hughey followed his three with a steal, but another turnover led to a VMI layup. Foster answered that score with a three. Then Hughey hit another three. Then Foster hit another three. Hughey's jumper in the paint gave Furman a 17-11 lead with 10:51 left in the half. Foster and Hughey accounted 14 of those 17 points.
Another Furman turnover helped the Keydets go on an 8-0 run to take a 19-17 lead with 7:31 left. That's when the Paladins really tightened up the defense and Foster just kept scoring. Foster's fourth three-pointer capped a 13-0 run. After VMI snapped that scoreless streak on a pair of free throws with 20 seconds left, Foster's fifth three-pointer as time expired gave Furman a 33-21 lead at the half.
While the Paladins defense wasn't quite as stingy in the second half, their offense picked up the pace to ensure the lopsided win. After taking that 12-point lead into the break, Furman never led by less than 12 the rest of the way.
"You guys know how much turnovers bother me and frustrate me. We didn't have a great first timeout because of them, but I give our guys credit," Richey said. "We had five to start the game and only had five the rest of the game."
Eight of those 10 turnovers came in the first half. One of those two after halftime came just nine seconds into the second half on an offensive foul. After having assists on all 11 made field goals in the first half, Furman had assists on 14 of 19 makes in the second half for its second consecutive game with at least 25 assists.
Foster's career night for points and threes came after scoring 17 against Anderson in the last game before the Christmas break. He had just 21 points combined in the four games before that. Despite coming off the bench, he played more than any other Paladin Thursday, logging 35 minutes and one second.
"It was fun being out there. It was crazy because I came in and didn't come back out until the very end. I was just appreciative to be out there and for coach to have that trust in me," Foster said. "That (Anderson) game was huge for my confidence coming back into conference play. ... Luckily for me, I was able to get hot tonight and just kept firing it up there and kept making shots."
Perhaps in a sign of the difference between a redshirt junior and a true sophomore, while Foster's defense helped him stay on the court, Hughey's did not. But as soon as Hughey got back on the court in the second half, he stroked another three to give Furman its biggest lead at 27. Hughey finished with 13 points and four rebounds in his 10:16 off the bench.
"Tyrese's ceiling is so high, you can just see it. I get frustrated because there's missed assignments out there that don't get picked up so easily, but his heart is so good and he cares so much," Richey said. "Tyrese was in here yesterday morning early. We've had to give Tyrese a morning time limit. Our strength coaches have had to tell him, 'you can't come in here until this time.' So what's happening is he's got a ton of confidence in it because he's put the work in. He had a few missed assignments ... but he's just going to keep getting better."
In Thursday's opening half, Furman leading scorers Bothwell and Jalen Slawson and VMI leading scorer Conway combined for two points. Slawson was 1-of-6 from the floor, Conway was 0-of-6 and Bothwell didn't attempt a shot. Conway finished with eight points on 2-of-9 shooting and 10 rebounds for the Keydets (5-9, 0-1).
Bothwell ended up with 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting and three steals, while Slawson may have had a triple-double if the game had been closer. He finished with seven points, nine rebounds, eight assists and three blocked shots in less than 30 minutes of playing time. J.P. Pegues had 15 points, six rebounds and no turnovers also for the Paladins.
"Mike had no shots at halftime, but I couldn't tell. He just had a competitor, strong face. ... He's been on the other side of this too. His sophomore year at Chattanooga, they decided to stay out on the other all-conference players and he goes for 26 (points). The open guy is the go-to guy. That's just how we operate," Richey said. "At the end of the day, for him to play a half with no shots is completely on me. We did a better job of getting him shots in the second half.
"Mike's leadership has been consistent all year. It's the best he's ever led. ... This is a bold comment from all the great players that we've had here, but he's rivaled anybody that I've coached in terms of leadership qualities that he's presented our team with this year."
Furman will next play at Western Carolina Saturday at 4 p.m.