Monday, December 19, 2022

All's well that ends well for Bothwell at The Well

Mike Bothwell scored a career-high 36 points and hit the game-winning shot
in Furman's 72-70 win over Stephen F. Austin. Photo courtesy of Furman

The Furman basketball team gave its fans about every emotion imaginable in its first game of the season at its downtown home, the Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Saturday at the Greenville Winter Invitational. At halftime, the game appeared to be a laugher. With a couple of minutes left, it appeared to be a killer. At the end, Mike Bothwell made it just another thriller.

As he so often has in his career, Bothwell drained a game-winning shot in the final second to lift Furman to a 72-70 win over Stephen F. Austin. Just like he did on the same court three years ago against Wofford. Just like he did the last time Furman played a team from Texas that same season against UT-Arlington.

"We call this (arena) The Well, but I'm going to petition to rename it 'The Bothwell.' What an incredible shot," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "Everybody on our sideline and their sideline knew where the ball was going and he still made the play.

"We tried to run the double away to tie up some help and none of those guys bit on that thing. Both of them ran right to him and he turned around and he made it like a winner. That's what he is." 

Don't let another clutch shot by Bothwell distract that his entire game Saturday was one of the best performances by anyone to ever wear the purple and white. And don't let either of those distract that Saturday's game was one of the most gut-churning, ripsnorters ever.

That last-second jumper capped a career-high scoring day as Bothwell poured in 36 points, 21 of which came in Furman's 28-point second half. He made 12-of-14 field goals, 11-of-11 free throws, drew eight fouls and had three assists.

"Bothwell's such a great player. ... To get 36 (points) on 14 shots, I mean, you should be playing in another league versus playing against us today," Stephen F. Austin coach Kyle Keller said. "He should send this tape to every NBA scout and agent around the country. We made him a lot of money tonight."

Bothwell became the first Division I player to score 35 or more points on 85 percent shooting from the field and a 10-of-10 or better night at the foul line in a decade. Bothwell is the first Paladin to score 36 in a game since Jordan Lyons had 40 at VMI on New Year's Day of 2020.

While both coaches talked up Bothwell in the postgame press conference, what he talked about shows why he is a winner. Bothwell didn't speak a lot about having another game-tying or winning shot fall, or about his career-best scoring day. Instead, he reflected on the anniversary of his career-worst day.

"A year ago today, we played at Mississippi State and I had zero points. I got off that plane ride feeling really down about myself," Bothwell said. "All the things I've been through since that moment with Coach Richey, Slaw and all my teammates; they never stopped believing in me.

"A year later to come out and be able to have a game like this, I just can't thank everyone that's helped me do this enough. I wouldn't be here without my teammates."

It didn't appear that any of those heroics would be necessary after Furman put on its best 20 minutes of the season in Saturday's opening half. The Paladins (8-4) trailed 5-3 after the Lumberjacks' A.J. Cajuste hit a three-pointer at the 17:15 mark. That was SFA's second made field goal of the game. Its third came eight minutes and two seconds later. It's fourth came at the 5:49 mark.

Over that stretch of 11 minutes and 25 seconds between the second and fourth made shot, the Lumberjacks were 1-of-20 from the floor. Furman turned that 5-3 deficit into a 29-10 lead during that stretch. By the end of the half, the Paladins had a 44-22 lead and SFA had no timeouts left. Seven seconds into the second half, Ben VanderWal dunked to give Furman its biggest lead at 24 points.

Then everything changed.

The team with the huge lead suddenly got called for fouls left and right. SFA was in the bonus less than five minutes into the second half. Along with the seven fouls, Furman also committed five turnovers in that time span. Meanwhile, the Lumberjacks - who shot 26.5 percent in the first half - suddenly couldn't miss and had that 24-point lead sliced to 46-40 at the 15:04 mark.

"We knew how hard this game was going to be just by watching them through the years and seeing the dominance they've had at this level. ... We knew they were going to come out after halftime and make a run. I didn't expect it to be that fast," Richey said. "The story is going to be you know, they came back and we made a shot. But the margin that we'd built, we needed every single bit of it."

It appeared that Furman had things back in order on Bothwell's bucket that pushed the lead to 53-43 with 12:47 left. He was 10-of-12 at that point, but then SFA really ramped up the defense on him. While Bothwell was drawing fouls and knocking down free throws, his next field goal attempt didn't come until there were only 27 seconds left. By then the Lumberjacks had taken a 69-68 lead. 

That shot with 27 seconds left will forever be overshadowed by his game-winner, but this one was even tougher. Bothwell dribbled to the middle of the paint, twisted back to his right and shot a fadeaway that bounced off the front rim and through as Furman reclaimed the lead.

Then things went to a whole other level of unbelievable. A bounce pass in traffic on the other end landed between the knees of a Lumberjack and Bothwell snatched the ball away as he was falling to the ground. An official blew the whistle and ruled that a Paladin called timeout although it appeared none was called. With Furman out of timeouts, a class B technical foul was assessed. Class B means one shot for the non-offending team, but the Paladins got possession after it.

So with 9.6 seconds left, SFA's Latrell Jossell calmly drained the game-tying free throw. That the Kansas transfer's 21st point of the game, all of which came in the second half.

"To be honest with you, I'd almost had rather them not called it so we could've fouled and maybe got the ball back," Keller said. "It was a really awkward situation."

Bothwell took the inbounds pass and the ball never left his hands until the shot. He dribbled up the middle of the court then to the left, where he paused at the arc. That little pause cause the defender to pause as well and then Bothwell drove hard to the baseline before he pulled up and shot a rainbow fadeaway that hit nothing but net.

"I live for that moment. ... Nothing excites me more than a game-deciding shot so I always want the ball in my hands in moments like that," Bothwell said. "I'm just glad I was able to make the play for us tonight."

After that dunk by VanderWal seven seconds into the second half, the only other Paladin to score besides Bothwell was Slawson. His two second-half buckets were big ones as he had a putback and a three-pointer during the middle of that stretch where Bothwell didn't have a shot.

While things got hairy in the second half, Furman's defense had one of its better nights. Even though SFA shot 62.5 percent after halftime, it shot 41.4 percent for the game. Perhaps the most impressive stat from the Paladins' defense was the fact that the Lumberjacks scored only six second-chance points despite grabbing 14 offensive rebounds.

Furman's offense overcame 19 turnovers by shooting 52.2 percent from the floor and 85.7 percent (18-of-21) from the foul line. Slawson finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds, two blocked shots, two steals and no turnovers. J.P. Pegues had a career-high eight assists and four rebounds, and also was able to complete the game after picking up his fourth foul with more than eight minutes remaining.

The Paladins return to action Monday night when they host Division II Anderson at 7 p.m. The Trojans are coached by former Furman assistant Jimmie Williams.

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