Saturday, January 14, 2023

Another big first half helps Paladins top Mercer

Marcus Foster scored a career-high 25 points in Furman's
84-66 win at Mercer Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

On Wednesday night at Mercer, the Furman basketball team showed the best way to overcome a 31-percent shooting second half. That turned out to be shooting 71 percent in the first half. For the second consecutive game, Marcus Foster shot the lights out before halftime Wednesday. Unlike Saturday at ETSU, most of his teammates joined in this first half barrage of buckets.

The Paladins made 17 of their first 20 shots to build an 18-point lead and went on to an 84-66 win over the Bears. It's the 16th consecutive victory in the series for Furman. Foster finished with a career-high 25 points, including 18 in the first half - the same total he scored in the first half at ETSU.

While the two halves could not have been more different offensively for Furman, defensive consistency was once a again a key. After limiting ETSU to 33.3 percent shooting in each half Saturday, the Paladins held Mercer to 41.4 percent shooting in the first half and 42.4 percent in the second half.

"I'll absolutely take an 18-point win on the road. It wasn't as clean of a second half as I'd like, but give them (Mercer) some credit. They came out (after halftime) and played a lot harder. They tried to pressure us and got us out of rhythm," Coach Bob Richey said on the Furman Radio Network's postgame show. "I think they cut it to 14 and then we made some plays to stretch it back out and finish the game well. ... I thought there were a number of guys to step up. Marcus Foster continues to play lights out. I thought Mike (Bothwell) made some crucial plays at critical times."

Furman's defense was a bit uneven from the tip as the game was a shootout for the first few minutes. Shannon Grant's third made field goal at the 16:42 mark gave Mercer an 11-10 lead. While Grant was woofing to the Paladins about his <checks notes> layup, his defensive responsibility - Tyrese Hughey - was headed back down the court. After Grant's score, it took all of six seconds for J.P. Pegues to lob a three-quarter court pass over all the Bears' heads to Hughey for an easy layup.

The Paladins (13-5, 4-1 Southern Conference) never trailed again.

Grant's missed shot on the ensuing possession started a stretch of five consecutive misses for Mercer, the first four of those being shots in the paint. While the Bears got the offensive rebound after four of those misses, Furman made it a 10-0 run thanks to a jumper by Bothwell and 3-pointers by Pegues and Foster.

It was a 23-18 lead with 13 minutes left in the first half when the Paladins went on a 15-2 run over a 5:05 stretch. The first six field goals of that 7-of-8 shooting spurt were made by Ben VanderWal, Garrett Hien, Pegues, Jalen Slawson, Bothwell and Foster.

When Slawson drained a three with 1:35 left in the half, Furman was 20-of-26 from the floor and led by 19. Foster was fouled on a 3-pointer with 55 seconds left and made all three free throws to give the Paladins a 52-32 halftime lead.

"That was a pretty cushion of a 20-point lead, but it was kind of a fool's gold perspective because we're shooting like 80 percent. For a little while there, it felt like we couldn't miss," Richey said. "We were minus-two in box touches at halftime, minus-two in raw possessions and had given up eight offensive rebounds, so there was plenty to come back out here and try to do better (in the second half). I thought we did some of those things better."

After missing its last two field goals of the first half, Furman went 4-of-19 from the floor over the first 14:32 of the second half. But Mercer (7-11, 0-5) never got the lead below 14 thanks to defense and free throws. The Paladins, who made 14-of-17 free throws in the second half, did make four of their last seven shots to seal the win.

For the second consecutive game, Furman lost the rebounding battle (38-31) but won the game. It had gone 0-4 in games in which it was outrebounded this season prior to the last two.

It was also yet another game in which the Paladins made the opposition's leading scorer a non-factor, primarily due to Pegues' defense. Mercer leading scorer Jalyn McCreary, who was averaging 15.5 points per game entering Wednesday, was held scoreless on 0-of-6 shooting. The Bears' second-leading scorer, Kamar Robertson, entered Wednesday shooting 51 percent, including 50 percent (29-of-58) from three. He had 12 points on 3-of-11 shooting, including 0-for-3 from three.

Over these first five games of conference play, opposing teams' season-leading scorers have combined for 28 points on 7-of-42 (16.7 percent) shooting against Furman.

"J.P. continues to be an absolute force on the defensive end of the floor. He's just growing by the day," Richey said. "Even listening to his communication out there, it's so neat to see how he's really taken another step."

On his career-high scoring night, Foster made 7-of-9 shots, including 6-of-7 threes, 5-of-6 free throws and also had a team-high seven rebounds. Bothwell finished with 17 points, while Slawson had 15 points, five rebounds and five assists.

After opening league play against five teams picked to finish in the bottom half of the conference, now the schedule shifts for Furman. The next seven games for the Paladins will be against the four other teams picked to finish in the top half of the league. That begins with a second-place battle against UNC Greensboro (10-8, 4-1) Saturday at 4 p.m. at Timmons Arena. The game is expected to be a sellout.

Saturday will be a matchup of the SoCon's best offense and best defense. Furman is fifth in the country in assists per game (19.2), 11th is shooting percentage (49.8), 13th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.53) and 21st in scoring (82.1 points per game). The Spartans lead the SoCon in scoring defense (64.1 points allowed per game), field-goal percentage defense (39.5) and three-point shooting percentage defense (30.7).

The teams have split the season series each of the last four years. Last season, Furman won at UNCG, 58-54. In the rematch at Bon Secours Wellness Arena, the Paladins went on an 18-0 run to take a one-point lead with 59 seconds left but the Spartans pulled out a 58-56 win.

"It's going to be a different challenge. We know how well they guard. We know last year they guarded us great in both games. Both were unbelievable games with unbelievable finishes," Richey said. "I've got a lot of respect for (UNCG coach) Mike (Jones) and the way he does it. We're gonna be back at Timmons and hopefully will have a great crowd with tons of energy, because it should be a heck of a college basketball game."

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