|Alex Williams (24) scored a career-high 19 points off the bench in Furman's|
97-72 win over The Citadel Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman
An ironic flip side about a talented team that struggles with consistency could be that it should be hard for them to play two bad games in a row. Such was the case Wednesday for Furman, which looked like a different team than the one that blew a pair of nine-point leads in a 12-point loss at Western Carolina last Saturday.
When it got up by nine Wednesday against The Citadel, Furman didn't get comfortable like it did in Cullowhee. Instead, the Paladins expanded the lead. When they got that expanded lead, it never completely disappeared like it did against Stephen F. Austin and Appalachian State. Instead, Furman maintained focus on both ends and cruised to a 97-72 win at Timmons Arena.
"I'm really proud of our guys. Defensively, it's not a finished product. It's Jan. 5, but we're much improved," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "(Citadel coach) Ed's (Conroy) done a great job in terms of what they've been able to do in a short amount of time. His style of play is a headache. They challenge you so much off the bounce, which is where we've struggled here recently.
"Our on-ball defense wasn't perfect but it definitely was better. We fouled way too much in the first half. We improved from the disaster that we saw Saturday, but we've still got some things that we've got to clean up."
The Paladins (11-5, 2-1 Southern Conference) limited the Bulldogs to 40.7 percent shooting, while they shot 58.2 percent - second only to the 58.3 percent they shot against Belmont for best shooting nights against Division I opponents this season. Perhaps most notable about the defensive effort was that while Furman typically relies on deflections and turnovers for its success defensively, that didn't happen Wednesday. The Bulldogs only had eight turnovers, but the Paladins did score 14 points off those.
It appeared that kind of shooting night was in order when it took nearly seven-and-a-half minutes for Furman to miss its first shot of the night. The Paladins were 7-of-7 from the floor and 5-of-5 from the foul line before Alex Williams' three-point shot rimmed in-and-out no good with 12:37 left in the half. By then, the Paladins had built a 21-8 lead. Less than 30 seconds later, Williams made a steal which led to a Marcus Foster layup that gave Furman its biggest lead of the night.
Having a 23-8 lead was far and away the Paladins' most impressive opening eight minutes of a game this season. It was a welcome sight for a team that had not gotten off to a really good start since the Stephen F. Austin game on Dec. 17.
The approach to that advantage was also a fresh one as Furman attacked the paint and drew fouls. The tone of that approach was set from the start. While Furman prides itself on ball movement and did end up with 23 assists Wednesday, it's opening bucket came when Mike Bothwell got a rebound on one end and dribbled all the way to the hoop on the other as he made a contested layup.
"Coach has been telling us the past couple of games that we need to try to get in the paint more. We've been trying to keep the other team out of the box and we try to get in there more and we actually track that," Bothwell said. "Every media timeout, we're seeing those numbers so it's becoming more of an emphasis for us. That's going to help us get even more shots from from three that are more uncontested because teams are going to have to flow and help."
On a team with 11 players that shoot anywhere from 29 to 46.6 percent from three, the Paladins didn't attempt their first three Wednesday until Bothwell drained one at the 13:48 mark to push the lead to 18-6. After taking that 15-point lead on 8-of-9 shooting, there was bit of a cold stretch for Furman. The Paladins made just one of its next eight field goal attempts and Citadel got the lead down to 30-24 with 6:41 left.
But Furman seemed bound and determined to not have a repeat of Saturday, when it shot 65.2 percent in the opening half only to take a three-point lead into halftime. The Paladins went on a 13-4 run highlighted on threes by Bothwell, Foster and Ben VanderWal and took a 43-30 lead into half.
After going 0-for-5 from three in the first half, Citadel popped a couple early in the second half but could never get Furman's lead into single digits. It was a 49-39 game just over three minutes into the second half when back-to-back threes by VanderWal and Williams started a 23-4 run over the next 6:28. VanderWal's third three of the spurt gave Furman its biggest lead at 72-43 with 10:05 left.
"Alex's whole demeanor has changed. He wants to be coached and he's taking feedback. He's coming over to me when something doesn't go well and saying, 'hey coach, what did you see right there?' That's when this game gets really fun for a coach - when feedback can go both ways and it becomes about what we can do to get better," Richey said. "The world we're in right now, everything has to be an argument. But improvement usually comes from real dialogue.
"He's just been a joy and he hasn't even scratched the surface. He's 6-foot-5, can shoot it and can handle it. He really sees the game and has incredible feet."
As hot a start as Furman got off to, it was even better in the second half when it made 63.8 percent of its field goals. The Paladins, who also made a season-high 21-of-24 free throws, are currently seventh in the country in shooting at 50.2 percent.
The Paladins had 39 bench points Wednesday after scoring two at Western. A key to that was Richey putting Foster back in the starting lineup and bringing VanderWal off the bench. VanderWal didn't miss a shot and finished with a career-high 14 points and seven rebounds, while Williams scored a career-high 19 in 17:50 off the bench.
"I know my role is to come off the bench and just give 100 percent every time I'm on the court," Williams said. "I think I have to do that in order for us to just keep the energy going."
Bothwell was dynamite all night as he finished with 27 points, six assists and five rebounds. Jalen Slawson kept his cool and his focus on the game amidst some foul trouble and finished with 11 points and seven assists in 17 minutes. Foster made it five Paladins in double figures as he finished with 10.
"Ben and A-Will did an unbelievable job off the bench. Slaw really responded to some tough adversity ... He handled it well and had a great impact on the game," Richey said. "Mike really set the tone in a lot of ways. He gets 27 points on 14 points and six assists and was at plus-28."
A big-time performance not necessarily seen in the boxscore came from J.P. Pegues, who held Citadel sharpshooter Austin Ash to eight points on 3-of-12 shooting, including 1-of-7 from three. He entered Wednesday leading the Bulldogs in scoring at 16.4 points per game.
"I think (Ash) is the best shooter in the league. The shots are unreal on film, just from where he pulls from and how quick he does it," Richey said. "J.P. took a ton of pride in his responsibility on him. He just did a really, really good job defending him."
Bothwell added, "J.P. was the player of the game tonight. ... That one three (Ash) made was on me. It wasn't on J.P. ... We didn't get the turnovers we're used to, but they only had 10 assists so we forced more one-on-one plays and tougher shots."
Stephen Clark led Citadel (6-9, 1-2) with 18 points thanks in large part to personally drawing 10 fouls against Furman. He only logged 25 minutes though and fouled out with 6:47 left.
Furman will look to build that missing consistency when it goes back on the road Saturday. The Paladins will tip off at East Tennessee State at 4 p.m.