Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Foster's treys, Pegues' defense lift Furman to win

J.P. Pegues' defense powered Furman to a 70-54 win at
East Tennessee State Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. - There was a point in the first half of Furman's game at East Tennessee State Saturday in which Furman missed 12 consecutive shots. As it turns out, the Paladins had simply not found the right shooter in the right spot yet.

Marcus Foster ended that skid with a three-pointer. Then he hit another three. And then another. And then another. Foster scored 18 of his game-high 21 points in the first half, and also pulled down 11 rebounds, to power Furman to a 70-56 win. The Paladins (12-5, 3-1 Southern Conference) held the Bucs to 33.3 percent shooting in each half in recording their second-largest margin of victory ever at ETSU.

"We got to do this with our defense. We've been trying to emphasize it and fight with these guys about it and give our team credit. ... It's starting to pay off. We guarded the ball better. We kept the ball out of the post for the most part. We did a really good job in transition defense, and we did a really good job on their best player," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "We got off to a really good start and then they went zone, which we anticipated that because they did that here last year. ... Once we finally settled down, took a timeout and just relaxed our guys a little bit, we started getting some better movement against the zone and that opened it up for Marcus to get loose.

"Man, it's fun to watch him shoot the ball, defend like he's defending right now, and really rebound the way he's rebounding right now. He just looks like the player we all know he can be. When he plays well, it gives us a whole new dimension."

For the second consecutive game, Furman (12-5, 3-1 Southern Conference) got off to a great start especially on the defensive end of the court. Mike Bothwell's three-point play with 9:51 left gave the Paladins a 21-11 lead, but then the cold snap began. That stretch of 12 consecutive misses included one agonizing possession where Foster grabbed three offensive rebounds - and missed three putbacks.

What had to be frustration on the offensive end never affected Furman's defense though. Over that five-and-a-half minute stretch without a bucket, ETSU only got the lead down to 23-18 with 4:25 left. That's when the next three minutes became the Marcus Foster show. Alex Williams got a rebound and found Foster for his first three. After a Ben VanderWal offensive board, J.P. Pegues hit Foster for his next three. Williams found Foster for his next one, and Jalen Slawson hit him for his fourth.

"We were in that little slump and I just tried to stay ready for my opportunity and calm. My teammates kept finding me and I was able to knock them down," Foster said. "To hold them to 56, we're proud of that. We've been working on defense relentlessly, so it's good to see that translate."

VanderWal's fast break dunk followed Foster's personal 12-2 run and what had been a five-point lead with less than five minutes left in the half became a 37-20 lead with 1:04 left. ETSU got one of its three three-pointers for the game at the buzzer to send the game into halftime at 37-23. Furman had just two turnovers in the opening half.

For the second consecutive game, the Paladins didn't get comfortable despite having a comfortable lead. After the Bucs (6-11, 2-2) made their first shot of the second half 39 seconds into it, their next made bucket didn't come until the 11:04 mark. By then, the Paladins had stretched the lead to 51-32. Furman led by as many as 22 and never by fewer than 13 the rest of the way.

The Paladins outstanding defensive effort once again was sparked by making the opposition's top scorer miserable, and that effort was once again spearheaded by Pegues. ETSU leading scorer Jordan King, who entered Saturday averaging 13.1 points per game, was held to five points on 0-of-9 shooting. As a team, the Bucs were 20-of-60 from the floor, including 3-of-21 from three.

"The defense that J.P. Pegues is playing right now for us is incredible. We lost a machine on that end of the floor in (former point guard) Alex Hunter and J.P. is really emerging as the guy there," Richey said. "You look at these last two games and how he was able to guard (Citadel leading scorer Austin) Ash and how he was able to guard King today, it's pretty impressive."

That defensive effort helped Furman overcome a few things that didn't go its typical way, which should actually be a confidence boost moving forward. For the first time this season, the Paladins won a game in which they were outrebounded (42-35). Bothwell had 13 points on 4-of-14 shooting, including 0-for-7 from three. As a team, Furman shot 41.7 percent - well below it's top 10 nationally rated average of 50.2 percent entering Saturday.

Despite those numbers, the Paladins got a 14-point victory in historically one of the toughest environments in mid-major basketball. It's just Furman's second win in Johnson City since the 2004-05 season and its most lopsided there ever outside of a 78-54 win in the 1984-85 season.

"We only score 70 tonight, about 12 points lower than our average, but the main thing is 56 points (allowed). ... That strengthens Coach Richey's argument that it all starts on the defensive end and we keeping buying in," said Slawson, who finished with 16 points, seven rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocked shots.

"Alex Hunter was a heck of a defender and J.P. Pegues is right on par with him and he's only a sophomore. He's only going to keep getting better, bigger, faster and stronger. ... He cherishes these kind of matchups, which is something you don't see often out of a sophomore."

The victory marked the 100th in the careers of Bothwell and Slawson. Bothwell eclipsed the 1,700-point mark in his career as well. Bothwell's 1,705 points are two shy of Mel Daniel for 10th place on Furman's all-time scoring chart.

The Paladins will next play at Mercer Wednesday at 7 p.m.

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