Thursday, December 29, 2022

Paladins' defense a concern entering SoCon play

Furman coach Bob Richey, right, shakes hands with Anderson coach Jimmie Williams. Williams
was an assistant on Richey's staff for the previous four seasons. Photo courtesy of Furman

Two days after a thrilling last-second win over Stephen F. Austin, Furman came out a little sluggish against Division II Anderson on Dec. 19. A 60-point second half helped the Paladins take command and go on to a 106-79 win. In the final game of the non-conference schedule, five Furman players scored in double figures.

The Paladins (9-4) put up a season-high total of 29 assists on its 35 made field goals in Jimmie Williams' return to Timmons Arena. Williams is in his first season as head coach of the Trojans after working as an assistant to Furman head coach Bob Richey for the past four seasons.

While all those offensive numbers were great, offense hasn't been the concern during non-conference play. Defense has been a lingering issue and that didn't change against the Trojans.

"I'm sure that was fun to watch. You got to see a lot of offense and not much defense, until the second half. ... I wish we would've guarded better in the first half," Richey said in the postgame press conference. "I get that you can come up with all the reasons: It's an emotional, quick turnaround. Everybody's ready to go home. It's the last one before the break, but we have to be better. That's just the bottom line.

"I'm really proud of Jimmie. Turning a program around is a hard deal. I've been a part of it a couple times and it takes time. ... From the situation he took over to right now, you can see they've made some fast progress. Our system is not easy to teach. It's not easy to learn, but they're in a much better rhythm than I anticipated at this point. And he's got some guys that really have bought into it."

Williams' squad came out unintimidated and fighting. Anderson rallied from an early 12-6 deficit to take a 19-14 lead midway through the first half. Marcus Foster hit a three-pointer to ignite a 10-0 run as Furman regained the lead for good.

"They beat us down the court. They beat us off the bounce. They beat us on the backboards," Richey said. "We threw some balls in, but we just didn't come out with the right intensity."

After taking a 10-point lead into halftime, the Paladins (9-4) quickly took command in the second half thanks in large part to Garrett Hien and Ben VanderWal.

On the opening possession of the second half, Jalen Slawson hit a jumper off an assist from Hien. Then Hien had a block, hit 1-of-2 free throws and drained a three-pointer. VanderWal then scored five points in 11 seconds thanks to a three-point play followed by a steal and dunk. Hien followed with a layup on Furman's next possession to stretch the lead to 59-40 just 2:18 into the second half.

"I wasn't really enjoying the processing of this game knowing that (Williams) and I were going to be competing against each other with the friendship that we have. As I got out there and just watched him coaching and watching his guys competing. To be honest with you, watching them play harder than us in the first half, I was just really proud," Richey said. "As frustrated as I was with our group at halftime to see what he's doing there, that's pretty neat.

"To our guys credit, with a little bit of an urgent halftime, they responded well, I thought that four minutes right out of halftime was our best four minutes of the game. We were able to push the game open and score 60 points because we played better defense."

Furman never led by less than 12 the rest of the way as it shot 58.8 percent from the floor in the second half, including 9-of-20 threes.

Foster, who had gone four games without reaching double figures in scoring after doing so in six of the first eight games, had 17 points and six rebounds off the bench.

"Marcus has been doing a really good job doing what we need from him, whether that's starting the game or coming off the bench," said J.P. Pegues, who had a team-high 20 points, six assists, two steals and one turnover. "To have somebody like Marcus who can come off the bench and give us that spark is great. ... The energy on the defensive end is leading to everything for him offensively, where he can just go out and play free."

Slawson had 18 points, six rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocks. Hien finished with 14 points, five rebounds and three assists in 18 minutes. while VanderWal had 13 points and three steals. Tyrese Hughey had a team-high seven rebounds in 15 minutes off the bench.

Coming off one of the best performances in Furman basketball history when he scored 36 points on 12-of-14 shooting, including the game-winning bucket in the final second against Stephen F. Austin, Mike Bothwell made every field goal he attempted against Anderson.

All both of them.

Two days after Bothwell's career-high scoring night, he went from scorer to distributor. He had a career-high eight assists, along with nine points, five rebounds and no turnovers.

"We had 1.4 (points per possession) on offense, which is incredible, but a 1.03 on defense just isn't where it needs to be. It's something that I've got to take some time over the break and figure it out," Richey said. "I've got to figure out what's scheme, what's technique, what's execution, what's effort and what's attitude.

"Our offense is humming along pretty well ... but we're still a work in progress defensively. We let the game be in transition 42 percent of the time tonight, which is just not good enough."

With the Christmas break behind them, the Paladins turn their focus to the "second season." Furman opens Southern Conference play Thursday when it hosts VMI at 7 p.m. The Paladins will have a quick turnaround to play at Western Carolina Saturday at 4 p.m. After the new year begins, Furman will be on a Wednesday and Saturday/Sunday game schedule for league play the rest of the way.

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