Saturday, January 28, 2023

Paladins knock off Samford in thrilling fashion

Marcus Foster and Alex Williams celebrate after Foster's game-winning shot in Furman's
91-84 overtime win over Samford Wednesday. Photos courtesy of Furman

Entering Wednesday's Southern Conference showdown against first-place Samford, Furman's Marcus Foster had more 3-pointers in SoCon play than anyone else in the league, hitting 26-of-53 (49.1 percent). But an airball with 1:23 left in overtime Wednesday put Foster at a surprising 0-for-8 from beyond the arc. Foster, who's earned playing time primarily through defense in his career, then committed the cardinal sin of fouling on a three-point shot on the other end. That resulted in a 84-84 tie with 59 seconds left.

A quality that makes great shooters great is their ability to not live in the past. Foster displayed that on the Paladins' ensuing possession. With the shot clock running out, J.P. Pegues drove toward the basket, drew a double team and kicked out to Foster near the right corner. With Foster's defender leaping back toward him from Pegues, Foster drilled the go-ahead three with 30 seconds left. Furman went on to a 91-84 win, handing the Bulldogs their first SoCon loss.

"Marcus probably didn't feel like he had his best game, but man did he make a huge shot in overtime," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "I love the fact that he took the three. ... Shooters have to have an 0-for-0 mentality. Our guys are in here all the time working. If you're going to be in here this much, when you get a look, shoot it."

In a game that greatly exceeded all the hype and on a stage full of stars, Jalen Slawson shined brightest. Like Foster, he made his only three count as it tied the game at 76 with 18 seconds left in regulation to lead to overtime. Slawson led five Paladins in double figure scoring and finished with 26 points, 11 rebounds (six offensive), three steals and a huge block. Slawson drew 11 fouls and made 13-of-15 free throws.

"He draws 11 fouls and only commits two. That's a big-time stat line," Richey said. "Everybody played a huge part and I'm just really proud of our program tonight. This was a program win."

I could never do justice to this game in a normal game story, so I'm going to write about specific key moments and performances instead.

Bothwell's defense secures victory

Pegues has gotten a lot of well-earned credit for tenaciously defending the opposition's best guard this season. That continued Wednesday as Pegues and others doggedly pursued Samford's electric Ques Glover all night. Glover, who scored 20 in his season debut in the Bulldogs' previous game, was 5-of-13 from the floor. But in overtime, Glover hit 1-of-2 free throws after drawing a foul on his way to the basket and then made back-to-back layups to give Samford an 83-82 lead with 1:44 left.

With Pegues starting to cramp up and Bothwell having a three-inch height advantage against Glover, it was Bothwell who drew that assignment after Foster's three put Furman up 87-84. So often in basketball a team leading by three in the final seconds will closely guard the perimeter against a three, allowing the opponent to drive for a fairly uncontested layup.

Not Wednesday.

Bothwell stayed in front of Glover all the way to the basket. Glover's highly contested layup bounced harmlessly off the left side of the backboard not even drawing rim. Alex Williams grabbed the rebound, got fouled and knocked down both free throws with 17 seconds left to help secure the win.

"They got players everywhere. ... We went to all switch (defense) really to try to just keep the ball in front. It was, 'we've got to get to this stop. We're not going to give up an easy one here. At least we're going to try not to.' Ques had been killing us on that middle ball screen ... so we figured something in the middle tunnel was coming. We were able to force the miss without fouling, which was big," Richey said. "Then for a sophomore (Williams) to go up there - those aren't easy free throws and to go hit both of them. ... That was a good finish for us."

Furman's Mike Bothwell defends against Samford's
Ques Glover in the final seconds of overtime.

Wild sequence leads to overtime

Whoever might've tuned in with two minutes left in regulation missed most of a whale of a game, but got to see a full game's worth of highlights the rest of the way. After Bubba Parham's three-pointer pushed Samford's lead to 73-68 with two minutes left, Williams got a layup 12 seconds later and Furman (16-6, 7-2) called timeout.

Coming out of the timeout, Glover faked a three and made a beautiful bounce pass to Jermaine Marshall on the low block. Marshall turned to his right for a layup, but had his shot rejected by Slawson. After Slawson pinned the ball off the backboard it fell to the court where Bothwell pounced on it and wisely called the Paladins' last timeout before getting tied up.

"It felt like that ball was on the ground forever, but those are plays you have to make," Richey said.

On Furman's possession, Pegues dribbled to the middle of the paint and hit Williams for a wide-open three to tie the game 73-73 with 1:03 left. A.J. Staton-McCray, who might be the best player on a handful of SoCon teams but is the sixth-leading scorer for Samford (14-8, 8-1), answered with a three with Foster's hand in his face with 38 seconds left.

Pegues once again dribbled to the paint and kicked out this time to Slawson in the corner. Slawson pump faked Logan Dye and shifted to the wing. Dye recovered enough to still contest Slawson's shot, but the step-back three still went down to tie the game. With Pegues all over him, Parham's wild three-point attempt at the buzzer bounced off the top corner of the backboard no good.

"It's late in the game. Somebody had to shoot it and it came to me. I hadn't hit one, so I felt like I was due," Slawson said. "I shot it with confidence because all my teammates - my brothers, my coaches kept telling me to shoot it. I jumped up there and banged it."

Furman's Jalen Slawson blocks Jermaine
Marshall's shot late in regulation.

Offensive rebounds up

During Furman's overtime loss to UNC Greensboro at its last home game prior to Wednesday, the Paladins missed 33 shots but had only six offensive rebounds. Richey made fixing that essentially the only priority during Furman's next practice. It's paid off since, but nothing quite like it did on Wednesday. After getting 10 offensive rebounds at Chattanooga and 13 at Wofford, Furman grabbed 17 against Samford.

"We should be a good rebounding team. That shouldn't be an area that we struggle in as athletic as we are. ... You look at the bodies and we've got one of the best strength coaches in the country," Richey said. "When you shoot threes, you're going to have some longer rebounds. You just have to go get them."

While his game-winning shot will be remembered, Foster had some huge offensive boards. With the Paladins trailing 51-50, Williams missed a three but Foster soared for a terrific rebound and then found Williams sprinting to the basket. Williams couldn't convert the dunk, but he drew Glover's fourth foul with 11:54 left in the second half.

With Furman down 70-65 and 2:34 left in regulation, Williams missed a three but Foster kept the ball alive to Pegues, who secured it and knocked down a three.

"My shot wasn't falling early on, so I just tried to make an impact the best way I could by crashing (the board). I'm glad I was able to execute and it all worked out," Foster said. "Rebounding has definitely been a big key to our game and coaches really felt like we could get a lot of offensive boards tonight. ... You've just got to go hunt for them."

The Paladins had six of those 17 offensive boards in overtime, including three on the opening possession. The last of those six came off that airball three by Foster as Williams caught it and made the putback to give Furman an 84-83 lead with 1:18 left.

Free throws way up

With the spike in offensive rebounds the last three games, it's probably not a coincidence that Furman's free throw numbers have also gone up. The Paladins converted 27-of-34 free throws Wednesday and got key Bulldogs in foul trouble.

Marshall was averaging 14.6 points and 8.9 rebounds a game entering the Furman game, but had eight points and two rebounds in just 18:51 before fouling out Wednesday. Parham, who had 10 points and six assists, also fouled out.

After shooting 17-of-20 free throws compared to 33-of-41 for UNCG on Jan. 14, Furman made 20-of-25 at Chattanooga and 23-of-29 at Wofford.

Williams, Whitt step up

With Garrett Hien out of the starting lineup due to a concussion suffered in the Wofford game, Williams made his first career start. He responded with 13 points and a career-high nine rebounds (four offensive). Tyrese Hughey returned after missing the Wofford game due to illness and had a couple of big finishes at the rim. Ben VanderWal was sick Tuesday and Wednesday and was ineffective in the game.

Hughey and VanderWal only logged nine minutes apiece off the bench, which made Carter Whitt's play all the more crucial. Whitt had six assists and no turnovers in a season-high 25:34 off the bench. After making 15 turnovers in 11 non-conference games this season, Whitt's only had two in four SoCon games and played quite a few more minutes in those.

Bothwell finished with 17 points and four rebounds, while Pegues had 15 points, seven assists and four rebounds. Foster had 11 points, nine rebounds (four offensive) and four steals.

"Marcus didn't play his best game but man, he had some monster plays," Richey said. "He didn't have a great shooting night and I am zero concerned about that. He's going to make shots."

Dye had 19 points and six rebounds to lead Samford. Staton-McCray had 16 points, six rebounds and no fouls, while Glover had 15 points also for the Bulldogs.

Second half of the SoCon

After ending the first half of SoCon play by facing the first-place team in the SoCon, Furman will begin the second half of the conference slate against the first-place team in the league. The Paladins travel to UNCG Sunday for a 3 p.m. tip-off. The Spartans (14-8, 8-1) moved into a tie for first Wednesday with its win over VMI combined with Samford's loss.

The third-place Paladins will be looking to avenge it's home loss two weeks earlier and continue a trend in the series. The teams have split the regular season series each of the last four years. Two of those seasons saw the road team win each game. A Furman win would also create a three-way tie for first place thanks to Samford's loss at Wofford Saturday. Sunday's game will be televised locally on CW62.

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