Sunday, January 22, 2023

Furman closes strong in win at Chattanooga

Mike Bothwell scored a game-high 22 points in Furman's 77-69
win at Chattanooga Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

While Furman took a three-point lead into halftime at Chattanooga Wednesday night, it was the Mocs who carried momentum into the break. For the third consecutive half, the Paladins saw a larger lead whittled down in the final portion of a half. Fortunately for Furman, that streak didn't reach four.

The Paladins not only didn't falter down the stretch, they dominated. Furman went on a 13-3 run over the final 4:18 of the game to record a 77-69 win at McKenzie Arena. Over the final 9:19, Chattanooga made 2-of-13 field goals. The second of those makes was a putback with 22 seconds left that merely cut Furman's lead to five.

Pulling out a gutsy, road win against a team that you went 0-and-3 against last season would always be celebrated. For Furman (14-6, 5-2 Southern Conference), Wednesday's victory stood out a bit more considering how it bounced back from blowing a late 13-point lead in an overtime loss to UNC Greensboro the last time out.

"I'm really proud of our team and just the response to Saturday with everything these players have to deal with in this day and age," Furman coach Bob Richey said on the Furman Radio Network's postgame show. "I told them today, 'look, we've got to go out there and find some joy. ... We've just got to go play the game the way we're made to play the game and go through it with a good spirit with the understanding that we're going to get tested. There's going to be adverse moments and we're on the road.' I'll tell you what, they passed the test tonight."

The Paladins sputtered out of the gate at Chattanooga (11-9, 3-4). The lone made field goal over the first seven minutes was a Jalen Slawson jumper as the Mocs jumped out to a 13-6 lead. Six different Paladins combined for seven missed 3-pointers over those first seven minutes.

On the last of those, Ben VanderWal got the offensive rebound and scored. That started a 9-0 run over the next two-and-a-half minutes as Furman finally started looking inside for points. Marcus Foster's layup with 2:22 left in the half gave the Paladins their biggest lead of the night at 38-29. Furman has led by at least nine points in every SoCon game this season.

Just as it happened in the first and second half against UNCG, the Paladins ended the first half on a whimper. In the last five seconds of the half, Chattanooga got two offensive rebounds and Jake Stephens' putback at the buzzer cut Furman's lead to 40-37. It felt eerily similar to last season when the Paladins led at the half in all three games against the Mocs, only to go on to lose all three.

It also felt like Furman did a good job of denying Stephens the ball for much of the first half. After opening the game with a missed three-pointer, Stephens only had one other shot attempt before making his first field goal at the 9:30 mark. Despite all that, the SoCon's leader in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots ended up with 12 points and seven rebounds in the first half.

Coming out of halftime, Furman responded well from the shaky end of the first half. Slawson's putback pushed the lead to 57-50 with 14:05 left. Then the Paladins went on one of those out-of-nowhere cold spells. Over the next 8:16, Furman went 0-for-9 from the floor - and 3-of-6 from the foul line - as Chattanooga rallied to take a 61-60 lead with less than six minutes remaining.

Fortunately for the Paladins, the last part of their cold spell coincided with the beginning of Chattanooga's game-ending freeze. After Mike Bothwell's jumper tied the game at 66 with 4:18 left, Carter Whitt made his biggest shot as a Paladin when he drained a three with 2:42 left. That snapped the tie and gave Furman the lead for good. After a rebound by Whitt, Bothwell hit a jumper to push the lead to 71-66 with 58 seconds left and the Paladins went 6-for-6 from the foul line the rest of the way to seal the win.

Coming off Saturday's loss in which starting point guard J.P. Pegues had to sit out late moments of due to leg cramps, Whitt logged 22 minutes Wednesday. The Wake Forest transfer, who did not dress out a few games due to injury, had only played 80 seconds - all at Mercer - in conference play prior to Wednesday.

"I'm so proud of Carter Whitt and obviously the plays he made down the stretch. He's been battling and his attitude has been phenomenal lately. He stayed in the gym. He's been working and we've seen it coming," Richey said. "I didn't know he was going to make the shot to go up tonight, but I had a feeling he was going to play well.

"I knew I overplayed our guards a little bit on Saturday. We had to get to nine (players in the rotation). We stayed fresh and boy did we need it. I thought that was a huge key to the game."

Stephens was held to six points and one rebound in the second half to finish with 18 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots. The VMI transfer, who's been SoCon Player of the Week six times this season, entered averaging 21.9 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. It was later discovered that Stephens suffered a broken hand in the game and is out indefinitely.

Bothwell, the second-leading scorer in the league, finished with a game-high 22 points, while Slawson had 21 points, seven rebounds, two steals and a block. Slawson played brilliantly down the stretch as he managed to stay effective and not foul out after picking up his fourth foul with 8:37 left. Pegues had 11 points and seven rebounds, while Foster had 10 points and seven rebounds also for Furman.

"Defensively, we had to go a little bit smaller tonight. We put Slawson on Jake and he just did a tremendous job on him. He's a really hard cover and I think six of (Stephens') points in the first half came on offensive rebounds," Richey said. "We made some huge plays on the defensive end. That's what this team has to continue to grow into - understanding to get stops to win games, especially on the road, on the defensive end and not let our spirit get down.

"Everybody contributed and I'm just really proud of road performance. To be able to hold them to 37 percent in the second half and 40 percent for the game, that's really hard to do."

For the second consecutive game, the Paladins held their opponent to single-digit field goals made in the second half as the Mocs went 9-of-24 after halftime. It was a rare game in which game in which Furman won despite getting outrebounded (35-31). It was even more rare that the Paladins won despite having only eight assists. The last time Furman won with that low of an assist total came on Dec. 30, 2020, when it had eight in a 77-73 win over Chattanooga. 

Furman will next play at rival Wofford Sunday at 4 p.m. The game will be televised by ESPNU. The Terriers (11-9, 3-4) are coming off a heartbreaking 76-71 loss at Western Carolina Wednesday. Wofford led 71-67 before the Catamounts went on an 9-0 run over the final 28 seconds of the game to get the win.

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