Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Undersized Paladins pull away from Wofford

J.P. Pegues had career highs in points (26) and rebounds (8), and a team-high four
assists, in Furman's 96-82 win at Wofford Sunday. Photo courtesy of Furman

SPARTANBURG - On a day when Furman's Tyrese Hughey (illness) sat out, Garrett Hien got knocked out and Jalen Slawson fouled out, there were plenty of Paladins who balled out. None more so than J.P. Pegues, who had a career-high 26 points, a career-high eight rebounds and a team-high four assists as the Paladins downed Wofford, 96-82, Sunday.

Even though Slawson's departure made Furman's depleted post even thinner, he also made Sunday's baller list. It was his dominant second half that positioned the Paladins to be able to finish off the Terriers without him for the last couple of minutes. Slawson scored 14 of his 17 points after halftime, including some momentum-swinging dunks, to help Furman (15-6, 6-2 Southern Conference) win consecutive games at Wofford for the first time since the 2003 and 2004 seasons. It's the highest scoring output by the Paladins in Spartanburg since a 109-86 win over the Terriers 53 years ago.

"Just because you have one out or tonight - two out, you've still got a lot out there. You've still got a lot of fighters out there and you've just got to figure it out. After Slaw fouls out, we've got to finish the game with five guards. I don't have any plays for five guards. ... Just go win anyway," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "I thought our team had great composure. We didn't get off to a great start either half, but I thought we regrouped well and made the runs. I didn't think it was our cleanest defensive game, but obviously we played very clean offensively.

"I don't know if there's a faster point guard in this conference than J.P. Pegues right now. Obviously, (Samford's) Ques (Glover) is really fast as well. ... J.P. has clearly anchored himself as a point guard, who's going to be a really good one for years to come in this league."

Playing a SoCon standalone game on a Sunday afternoon before a packed house and an ESPNU audience, Furman sputtered out of the gate. The Paladins trailed 8-0 four-and-a-half minutes in. Their first nine possessions went: turnover, airball three, turnover, missed three, turnover, missed three, turnover, missed three, missed three.

But after Alex Williams' putback of that last missed three finally got Furman on the board, the turnovers suddenly stopped as did the bricked threes soon thereafter. After missing their first six shots from beyond the arc, the Paladins made five consecutive threes as part of an 18-1 run over a stretch of just 2:47 to take a 20-11 lead.

Furman went on that spurt after losing Hien early on in it when he took an inadvertent elbow to the face on a rebound attempt. After a few minutes being checked on the court, Hien went to the locker room and never returned to the bench.

As you might expect in what's become one of the best rivalries in SoCon basketball, the Terriers (11-10, 3-5) answered Furman's big run with a 9-1 one of its own. After what then became more of a layup drill by both teams the rest of the half, the Paladins took a 44-43 lead into halftime.

In the opening half, Pegues had 16 points and five rebounds, while Williams scored 10 off the bench. Despite the absence of two of its biggest (physically) parts of the rotation, Furman had a 20-14 rebounding advantage in the first half including an 8-0 edge in offensive boards.

"Garrett took a big hit early and we basically played the game with one post man. We knew we had to help him out and everybody just had to raise the stakes and step up," Pegues said. "And that's what everybody did today."

After being outscored 8-0 to start the game, the Paladins were outscored 9-0 to start the second half. Wofford hit back-to-back threes and then had a three-point play to take a 52-44 lead. Slawson answered that run by spinning off his defender at the top of the key and gliding to the basket for a dunk. That was a sign of things to come for the Paladins, as it began of stretch of 13-of-15 shooting on two-point field goals.

The back-and-forth game was tied at 60 with 11:44 left before Furman's fifth-year seniors - and Williams - took over. Slawson's three-point play with 11:18 left snapped the tie and gave the Paladins the lead for good. A pair of Williams' three-pointers began and capped a 10-0 run to push Furman's lead to 73-62 with 8:35 left.

Over the next critically important minutes of the game, nearly every Wofford score was immediately answered by Bothwell or Slawson. After a Terrier three cut the lead to 73-67, Bothwell drove for a teardrop layup 16 seconds later. After Jackson Paveletzke's jumper for Wofford sliced the lead to 75-69, Slawson hit a turnaround jumper along the baseline 27 seconds later. B.J. Mack's layup cut the lead to 77-73 before it took all of six seconds for Carter Whitt's long pass to Slawson for a dunk on the other end.

"When they score and we throw it over the top to Slawson ... those are just demoralizing plays (for the opponent). They take a lot of discipline to do and it's something that we've had to really work at," Richey said. "The difference for us between jogging and sprinting isn't big. When we sprint, we're tough to guard in transition.

"The speed that we're playing with right now and the way we can run the floor, if we can get stops and get rebounds, it's hard (to defend). ... Guys are settling into their roles and they're really buying in to making sure that all nine have to be a part of this."

If that Slawson dunk was a punch to Wofford's gut, his next was the knockout blow. On Furman's next possession, Slawson basically dribbled from one end of the floor to the other for a dunk in which he also drew a foul. He hit the free throw to extend the lead to 82-73. By the time Slawson fouled out with 2:20 left, Furman's lead had reached 13 and it felt like the result was hardly in doubt.

The Paladins made each of their last 11 free throws to close out the victory. While Bothwell was only 3-of-7 from the floor, he drew eight fouls and hit 13-of-14 free throws to finish with 20 points. As a team, Furman converted 23-of-29 free throws.

Williams finished one shy of his career-high scoring game with 18 points and five rebounds. After making 7-of-28 three-pointers this season, he drilled 4-of-8 Sunday as part of a career-high seven made field goals in 11 attempts. In addition to Williams, Ben VanderWal was huge off the bench as he recorded his first double-double with 11 points and a career-high 11 rebounds. Six of those boards came on offense, as Furman outrebounded Wofford, 42-30, including 13 offensive.

"G (Hien) is one of our warriors ... so I felt like I just had to come out and just be the bruiser out there. Just getting on the floor and doing the hard things that people don't necessarily want to do," Williams said. "I just thank the coaches for believing in me and my talents."

Paveletzke, a freshman who is and will continue to be a problem, led Wofford with 25 points, while Mack finished with 21.

After those four turnovers in the first four minutes, Furman had just five the rest of the way. The last coming on an intentional shot clock violation with one second left. Wofford had even fewer turnovers as it finished with six, but in an odd way that somehow makes the Paladins' offensive performance even more impressive.

The biggest on-court factor in what's transformed Furman into a well-respected mid-major program has been defense, specifically making deflections and turning steals into points in transition. For the Paladins to score 96 points on the road in the SoCon and only have two steals is rather remarkable. It shows that Furman is discovering other ways to succeed.

The Paladins officially only scored four "fast break" points. But to start a game with no points over the first four-and-a-half minutes and end up with nearly 100 shows Furman can score pretty fast and in bunches.

"It's where we've made a big push this year. (New assistant coach) Chad Warner's been a huge boost to our staff and has brought a lot of offensive concepts in the transition piece of the game. It's really been a good complement to what we've already done," Richey said. "It's like, 'let's play horizontal and vertical. Let's stretch this whole court out and use all the space as fast as we can.' "

Speaking of scoring fast, the top two offenses during SoCon play square off Wednesday when Furman hosts Samford at 7 p.m. to wrap up the first half of the league schedule. The Paladins are averaging 82 points per game in conference play, while the first-place Bulldogs (14-7, 8-0) average 76.4 points per game. Samford is also second in scoring defense in SoCon games, allowing just 66.8 points per game.

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