Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Bothwell leads Paladins to SoCon title, No. 1 seed

Mike Bothwell scored 35 points to lead Furman to a 93-76
win at Samford Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

HOMEWOOD, Ala. - So evidently Mike Bothwell's fine.

Coming off his longest scoring slump in three years, the sixth-leading scorer in Furman history showed he hasn't forgotten how to put the ball in the basket Saturday. Bothwell showed it in a major way and did so in the Southern Conference's game of the year.

In true "big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games" fashion, Bothwell scored 35 points to lead the Paladins to a 93-76 win at Samford and a share of the SoCon regular season championship for the first time since 2017. As a result of sweeping the season series over the Bulldogs (21-10, 15-3), Furman (24-7, 15-3) earned the No. 1 seed for the SoCon Tournament for the first time since 1991.

"High tide lifts all ships. When somebody is playing at a high level, that energy is infectious. When you've got a guy out here and he's not just making shots, but he's playing with that spirit ... and belief, you can feel it. You can see that true belief in people's faces and in their expressions," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "That was the best thing about today. Outside of the four minutes after halftime, I just didn't think we looked super rattled. The crowd got into (to start the second half). We had some bad turnovers they converted into points, but I thought our faces just showed, 'hey, you know what, we're gonna win this thing.' That's what you've got to have in big-time ballgames."

Following a stunning upset loss at The Citadel that snapped an eight-game winning streak, the Paladins overcame some rough play to get a pair of close wins and give themselves a championship shot Saturday. After Wednesday's victory over Mercer, Richey said he felt like his team might play a little more freely at Samford after finally getting there - even with so much at stake. Following a bit of a slow start, his thought came to fruition.

"Sometimes as coaches, you're very routine driven because routine is comfortable. I flipped the script on them this week. After a Wednesday game, we typically go pretty soft on Thursday just to try to re-rest them and then go have contact on Friday and go play (Saturday). On this Thursday, we went for about an hour and then (Friday) we did strictly shots and walkthrough just to change it up a little bit," Richey said. "We also talked about the gratitude of being in this game. This is what they came here for - to play in front of a sold out crowd on national TV for a chance to be a one seed. We wanted to focus on being thankful to be in this environment and play in this game.

"We knew it was going to be one of the best atmospheres we've been in all year, but the lines are the lines. Once we get on this court, we've got to go play and I was thankful our guys did that today. This was our most complete game of the year and that's what you want this time of year. You want to be playing your best when it matters the most."

Entering Saturday, Bothwell was coming off a three-game stretch in which he made just two field goals in each game and didn't reach double figures in points in any of them. The last time Bothwell went more than two consecutive games without at least 10 points in any was in a four-game stretch in the middle of the 2019-20 season. He also had made more than one three-pointer in just one of his previous 10 games, when he hit 3-of-8 at VMI.

On Saturday, Bothwell's single-digit scoring skid ended in a hurry. Playing in front of a raucous home crowd in what had to be Samford's biggest SoCon game ever, Furman got off to a bit of a slow start. Nearly five minutes in, the Paladins trailed 5-2 and were 1-for-6 from the floor. Their only made bucket was a putback by Bothwell.

But with 15:03 left, Bothwell hit a layup. Then he hit a three. Then another three. Then another three. Then another three. Then he was fouled on a three. Coming back from the media timeout, Bothwell missed his first shot of the day. He made the other two free throws though, and it was Mike Bothwell 18, Samford 7 with 11:47 left in the half.

"I've just got to thank God, my teammates and coaches. ... I got all kind of messages from teammates and coaches to make sure I was in the right headspace," Bothwell said. "It's ironic what happens when I just lose myself in the team and focus on getting the win. Things open up for me and I can just be myself and be confident."

Furman led 24-18 with 7:56 left in the first half when what should've been Bothwell's 20th point on a driving layup was waved off by a weak charging call. The worst part for the Paladins was that it was Bothwell's third foul, which gave him the rest of the half off.

So this was reality at that point for Furman: It was facing a team that had already clinched a share of their first SoCon regular season title, but was fighting for the outright crown and top seed for the SoCon tourney. It was "Senior Day" and a "red out" in a hostile environment, where Samford had gone 16-1 in conference play over the past two seasons. And now it was trying to sustain a six-point lead with its leading scorer - who scored its first 18 points of the game - on the bench for the remainder of the half.

Sustain? Forget that. The Paladins thrived.

After the third foul on Bothwell, Samford stud Ques Glover hit a jumper to cut the lead to four. That was as close as the Bulldogs ever got the rest of the way. Ben VanderWal answered with a four-point play off an assist from J.P. Pegues. On Furman's next trip, Alex Williams grabbed an offensive rebound and Pegues hit a three off an assist from VanderWal. Then Pegues hit Marcus Foster for a layup. Pegues drained another three and then had an assist on a Jalen Slawson layup.

Pegues ended one of Furman's best halves of the season with another three-pointer to stake the Paladins to a 50-33 lead at the break. After Bothwell left with that third foul with just under eight minutes left, Furman outscored the Bulldogs 26-15 the rest of the half. The Paladins had 48 points over the final 15:03 of the half.

"Mike went out and we were up six, then we got into the tunnel (at halftime) up 17. That's team. I know it sounds cliché sometimes when I talk about it, but it's what I believe in. It's my core," Richey said. "Everybody that played tonight and to be honest, even guys that didn't play tonight, the bench, the staff, everybody carried themselves like we wanted to come in here and do this thing together."

That's the thing about a championship team like Furman. It's not only a "team" in the sense of sharing the ball to the tune of ranking in the top five nationally in assists per game. Or a "team" in the fact that the nine-man rotation is filled with versatile players all of whom can shoot from anywhere. It's also the "team" sense of everyone in purple and white Saturday being genuinely happy for Bothwell's incredible start and feeding off that energy.

"For him to come out tonight and score like that was unbelievable," Pegues said. "But we knew Mike Bothwell was gonna be Mike Bothwell. He's been here five years and he's our guy. We have full trust in him and he showed why by not forcing things in those tough games."

Pegues started the second half like he ended the first. His three-pointer on Furman's first possession after halftime gave the Paladins their biggest lead of the day at 19. Samford did take advantage of back-to-back turnovers by Furman to cut the lead to 55-44. That forced Richey to take a rare early timeout. Coming out of the timeout, Garrett Hien drained a three off an assist from Pegues.

That was the story for the rest of the game. Every time the Bulldogs sniffed getting the lead to single digits, the Paladins had an answer. Over the next 10 minutes after Hien's three, Samford cut the lead to either 10 or 11 eight different times. They only got the lead under 10 once at 70-62 with 9:09 left. That single-digit advantage lasted all of 17 seconds before Hien dunked off a feed from Slawson.

"Even when they went on runs, we were all about 'next ball action,' and getting the ball out quickly. ... We didn't let one or two plays affect us as a whole," Pegues said. "We knew what the stakes were today, but we were just really excited for the chance. Multiple guys were saying we wish could've played last night after getting here. We just find joy in what we do and that helps us a lot. We don't think about pressure. We go out there, cut loose and have fun."

Unlike its previous three games, Furman was nearly perfect from the foul line in the second half. The Paladins sank 17-of-18 free throws after halftime to help put the game out of reach. The win made Bothwell and Slawson the winningest players in school history with 112 victories in each of their illustrious careers. For the game, Furman shot 54.7 percent from the floor, including 50 percent from three (14-of-28), and 87.5 percent from the foul line (21-of-24).

Bothwell made 10-of-15 shots, including 5-of-8 threes, and 10-of-11 free throws. His 35-point performance was one shy of the career-high he set against Stephen F. Austin earlier this season and leaves him one shy of Stephen Croone for fifth place on Furman's all-time scoring list. Saturday's effort helped Bothwell earn SoCon Player of the Week honors.

Pegues finished with 20 points, four assists and four rebounds, while Foster had 16 points, four rebounds, two steals and a block. Slawson added seven points, 10 rebounds, three assists and a block. While Tyrese Hughey didn't attempt a shot, he had a big-time contribution with four rebounds, two assists and a steal in only six minutes off the bench.

"We learned from the past three games that you can't come out tight. You can't come out scared to lose. ... If you get down on yourself, their crowd, their team and style of play can get on your really quick," Bothwell said. "We just manned up. I had a feeling all day looking at our group that we were dialed in. ... We came to Furman to play in these types of games and man, we were ready today. I've got to give credit to J.P., Marcus and all the guys. We were just ready to play no matter what was thrown at us."

Glover finished with a career-high 27 points to lead Samford.

The top-seeded Paladins will face either Mercer or The Citadel in Saturday's quarterfinal round of the SoCon Tournament in Asheville at noon. The eighth-seeded Bears and ninth-seeded Bulldogs kick off the tourney at 5 p.m. Friday. Being the top seed guarantees Furman an NIT bid, but obviously the goal is to cut down the nets next Monday and advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1980.

"We love winning and love being champs, but we know we've got to go do this thing in Asheville. We've got to celebrate tonight, but wake up tomorrow and be hungrier. But we've also got to be humble. We haven't won every single game," Richey said. "We've got to go in that tournament with a humility that if we go play together, we play with belief and we do the things necessary to play a complete game like we did today, then we can earn the right to be successful.

"We're gonna celebrate the heck out of this because I'm a believer that winning is hard, but when we get back in that building on Monday we've got to be ready to go get better."

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Furman tops Bears to earn title shot at Samford

J.P. Pegues had 18 points and five assists in Furman's 70-67
win over Mercer Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

For the third consecutive game, things really go as Furman probably planned Wednesday. For the second game in a row, it didn't affect the bottom line. In the home finale, the Paladins missed key free throws, went more than 11 minutes without a field goal in the second half, had more turnovers than assists, got outrebounded and had a total of four bench points. They overcame all of that to defeat Mercer, 70-67, to extend their winning streak in the series to 17.

The victory was the 111th in the stellar careers of fifth-year seniors Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson, tying Alex Hunter's school record for career wins.

While it may not have looked exactly like Furman (23-7, 14-3 Southern Conference) wanted, the win positioned the Paladins exactly where they wanted entering the regular season finale. Furman will play at Samford (21-9, 15-2) Saturday at 2 p.m. in hopes of sharing the SoCon regular season championship.

A victory would give the Paladins a series sweep, which would secure them the No. 1 seed at the SoCon Tournament and an autobid to the NIT. Should Furman win and UNC Greensboro wins at ETSU Saturday, there would be a three-way tie for first place and the Paladins would earn the top seed out of that tiebreaker. A Furman loss Saturday would leave them as the No. 3 seed unless UNCG also loses, which would give Furman the No. 2 seed.

"It was great to see Slawson, Mike and Rett (Lister) close out the homestretch with a win tonight and just stay in a position to be able to fight for a championship at the end, I'm sure there's going to be a bunch of questions about how clean it was, but this time of year the only thing that matters is we found a way to get a win," Richey said. "I credit these guys for 23 wins. It's only happened six times in school history and five of those have been since 2016. Now we have a chance to go down there and play for a championship."

Now that they've gotten that chance, Richey believes his team might play a little more free Saturday.

"I don't want to take any credit away from Mercer. They played incredibly hard, but we looked a little tight," Richey said. "I told them after the game, 'now you're here. This is where you wanted to be.' We knew we had to win these two games to stay in the race. ... Sometimes you try to hide that pressure from the guys, but that's what the end of the year is. It's a bunch of one-game seasons."

Three of the biggest factors in Furman's success this season has been rebounding, bench points and assist-to-turnover ratio. That last factor has actually been a staple of this program for years now and the Paladins were ranked sixth nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio entering Wednesday.

So in what was an ugly game for much of the night, it was bizarre to see Furman struggle in all three of those categories. Mercer held a 36-31 rebounding edge, including 14 offensive boards, and had a 30-4 advantage in bench points. Furman finished with 14 turnovers and 11 assists.

But a deeper look at a couple of those numbers reveal a bit of how Furman got the win. While they had 14 turnovers, the Paladins only made three in the second half. They forced 15 and outscored the Bears 20-14 in points off turnovers. While Furman had five fewer offensive rebounds than Mercer, it outscored the Bears 14-12 in second-chance points.

The sign of a good team is the ability to overcome things that don't go like they typically do. While Furman may not have had to overcome all three of these factors in the same game before, it has overcome them at different times this season. The Paladins are now 3-2 in games in which they had more turnovers than assists, 4-5 in games that they've been outrebounded in - after starting 0-4 in that category, and 11-4 in games where the opponent had more bench points. Furman moved to 2-4 in games where the bench had no more than five points.

"I really think this is going to end up being beneficial for us. ... Nobody's going to Asheville and winning games by 15 or 20 points. That's not how Asheville works," Richey said. "Those are going to be tight games. So I think Sunday (an 83-79 win over ETSU) and tonight are going to be productive experiences."

Despite a pretty sloppy opening half, it appeared that the Paladins were positioning themselves for another lopsided win after an 84-66 win at Mercer earlier this season. Furman held a 25-13 lead with less than eight minutes left in the first half and a 10-point lead with less than 50 seconds left. But once again, the Paladins fizzled out to end the half.

On its final three possessions of the half, Furman had two turnovers wrapped around a missed three. The last turnover came on a misfired lob after the Paladins had held to try to get the last shot. A dunk or layup there would've given Furman a nine-point lead at the half. Instead, Mercer (12-18, 5-12) gathered the loose ball and Shawn Walker's three-pointer at the buzzer cut the lead to 33-29 at the break.

The Bears scored on their first two possessions of the second half and just like that, it was tied 33-33. Outside of the first two minutes of the game, Furman never trailed though - even during a second-half stretch of 11 minutes and 30 seconds without a field goal. After Slawson's jumper with 15:18 left, the Paladins didn't make another bucket until Slawson's layup with 3:48 left. Furman actually outscored Mercer by two during that 0-for-7 stretch. That was thanks to going 14-of-19 from the foul line as the Paladins just started driving and Bears just started hacking.

After Slawson ended the field goal drought, J.P. Pegues made it a bucket spurt. Pegues hit a three-pointer and a pair of layups to give Furman its biggest lead of the second half at 65-59 with 46 seconds left.

"I just decided to be aggressive as I should be at the end of the game," Pegues said. "I feel like I'm one of the fastest guards in the league and they were picking me up at midcourt, so I just decided to make an aggressive move and ended up making a play."

Pegues missed a pair of free throws with 11 seconds left, leaving Furman with a 67-65 lead. But Mercer standout freshman Jah Quinones dribbled the ball off his foot out of bounds on the ensuing possession. Slawson hit just 1-of-2 free throws to leave the Bears one more chance down by three with 4.5 seconds left.

Given Mercer's 14 offensive rebounds, Richey chose not to foul and just have the Paladins heavily guard the perimeter. The Bears' Luis Hurtado proceeded to drive to the hole for a layup with 0.9 seconds left to cut the lead to one as his coach, Greg Gary, looked on in disbelief. Slawson then made a perfect, three-quarter court inbounds pass to Marcus Foster. Foster hit a pair of free throws to close out the game, handing Mercer its third consecutive three-point loss.

"I've watched two games this month where the team that's fouled (up by three late) has lost. ... I believe there's not necessarily an absolute 'yes' or 'no' on fouling there. You've got to know your team and the context for the game," Richey said. "I thought '4.5 seconds left, soft pressure, three-point defense, know what we're doing on hand-offs and on ball screens, and if they punch to the paint, let it go.' I thought Slaw made a genius play to bait them into the drive.

"Then he had the awareness to inbound it long. It was a beautiful pass. What you can't do there is throw it out of bounds because they get a spot (under their basket), so you've got to put a little air on it."

In what was very likely his final game at Timmons Arena, Slawson finished with a season-high 27 points and posted game-highs in rebounds (7) and blocks (2). Slawson was 7-of-10 from the floor, including 3-of-4 on three-pointers. He also made 10-of-16 free throws as he drew 11 fouls. The Paladins only shot 65.7 percent from the foul line, but hit 23-of-35 (22-of-33 of which came in the second half) to improve to 16-0 when making more free throws than the opposition.

Pegues was the only other Paladin in double figures with 18 points and a game-high five assists. Bothwell had nine points as Furman's leading scorer didn't reach double figures and made just two field goals for the third consecutive game. Those two field goals came on a putback 77 seconds into the game and a three-pointer - on his only attempt - not quite three minutes into the game. He did make all four of his free throws - all late in the second half. The last time Bothwell went three consecutive games without reaching double figures was a four-game stretch from Dec. 14, 2019-Jan. 4, 2020.

"Slaw played a tremendous game. I couldn't be more proud of him. J.P. did some unbelievable things. Let me tell you something, Mike had a big-time second half. I felt like he made some big plays," Richey said. "I have total faith in Mike. ... This is three games in a row where his volume's been restricted.

"He's a scorer. He's almost got 2,000 (career) points. We're at that point where I've got to look at it and figure out as a coach how to help him. ... I owe it to Mike to do every single thing I can to help him in any way I possibly can."

Now all eyes turn to Samford on Saturday for a game that will be televised by CBS Sports Network. Furman is going for its first regular season title since 2017 and its first top seed in the SoCon tourney since 1991. In the first matchup this season, the Paladins rallied from a five-point deficit in the final two minutes of regulation and then scored the final seven points in overtime for a 91-84 win in Greenville.

"It means everything to me to be able to go out here and play this game for all the people that came before me. Guys like Matt Rafferty, Jordan Lyons, Clay Mounce. They'd give anything to go back and have one more game to go play for a championship, so it means a lot," Slawson said. "We're not going to make it more than a game though. We're just going to go out there and tear it up for 40 (minutes), do what we do and see who the better team is."

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Paladins hold off ETSU for Senior Night victory

Furman's Mike Bothwell (3), Jalen Slawson (20) and Rett Lister (14) were honored prior to
the Paladins' 83-79 win over ETSU on Senior Night Sunday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Sunday night wasn't the prettiest game for Furman, but it sure beat the loss the Paladins were coming off of. After off a rough night, particularly offensively, last Wednesday in a 69-65 loss at The Citadel, Furman's defense was on the ropes Sunday. It allowed East Tennessee State to post its second-highest point total in Southern Conference play. But when push came to shove, the Paladins shoved hard. They outscored the Buccaneers 8-1 over the final 4:13 of the game to hang on for an 83-79 win on Senior Night at Timmons Arena.

After ETSU missed three consecutive shots in the first five minutes of the game, it never missed more than two in a row - until those last four minutes. The Bucs missed each of their last four field goals, which dropped their second-half shooting mark to 61.5 percent. Furman (22-7, 13-3) joined Gonzaga, Houston and Saint Mary's as the only Division I programs with at least 22 wins in six of the last seven seasons.

"Getting back on the winning side of things, that's the name of the game this time of year. You've just got to find a way to win," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "We've created this expectation that we're supposed to win by X amount, but this league's got really good coaches and really good players. They're all hard. After that performance on Wednesday night, we needed to find a way to get back on the left side of the (win-loss) hyphen.

"You can say we didn't guard as well. There's probably some accuracy to that but I'll tell you what, ETSU played really well. They got going. They were 10-for-20 from three and hit a couple of tough ones. There was some adversity. We got down three late, but we respond and go on a run to close the game out. That's what you have to do."

While Furman has one more home game remaining this season, "Senior Night" was shifted for a weekend game and Mike Bothwell, Rett Lister and Jalen Slawson were honored prior to tip-off. Coming off an upset loss, an emotional pregame ceremony, and playing at an odd time of 6 p.m. on a Sunday on ESPNU seemed to have all the makings of a shaky start and that's exactly what Furman got off to.

"There was a lot of emotion. I've got a ton of love for this place, this program and the people in the building supporting us. ... Obviously Wednesday was a disappointment, but I had a lot of the same emotions. It was my last time playing in my hometown and against my dad's alma mater," Slawson said. "I didn't do a good job leading us on Wednesday, so I just took some of the lessons that we talked about in film and things Coach Richey pointed out to me and tried to apply them today to be a little bit better.

"At the end of the day, we just had to keep the game about the game. That's all that matters - us having one more point than ETSU when the horn goes off."

Slawson and Lister, a walk-on making his first career start in Senior Night tradition, had turnovers on the Paladins' first two possessions. At the 15:08 mark, a third bad pass led to an ETSU three-pointer and the Bucs took what turned out to be their biggest lead at 13-7.

Furman came back and took the lead and maintained it for a long time thanks in large part to not having another turnover for nearly 30 minutes of game clock. By the Paladins' next turnover at the 5:53 mark of the second half, they held a 75-70 lead. That one did ignite a 90-second patch of rough basketball for Furman though, and an 8-0 run by ETSU was the result.

That turnover came when an alley-oop intended for Slawson was tipped away on a great play by the Bucs' Jaden Seymour. That would've been Slawson's third consecutive dunk, which would've likely made a roaring Timmons crowd even louder. A 77-70 lead with that much momentum could've turned the lights out on ETSU. Instead, Seymour dunked a putback on the other end to cut the lead to 75-72.

After Marcus Foster missed a three-pointer, the Bucs got the rebound and Furman committed three fouls over the next 32 seconds. The last of those saw Garrett Hien foul ETSU leading scorer Jordan King on a three-point attempt. King made all three free throws to tie the game with 4:59 left.

On the Paladins' ensuing possession, Mike Bothwell got the ball knocked away from behind. King fired a cross-court pass to Seymour, who knocked down a three and ETSU took its first lead since the 7:57 mark of the first half. That was the Bucs 10th made three in 19 attempts. They entered Wednesday next-to-last in made threes in SoCon play averaging 6.1 per game and went 3-of-21 from beyond the arc against Furman in Johnson City, Tenn.

With momentum clearly on ETSU's side, Furman snatched it right back 17 seconds later. Unfazed by each of their previous mistakes, Bothwell found Hien for a game-tying three on a "Basketball 101" play. Bothwell drove to the basket and drew Hien's man in on a double team. While Bothwell was going through his second consecutive quiet game scoring-wise, the Paladins' leading scorer didn't try to force up a shot. Instead, he made a perfect bounce pass to Hien all alone on the right wing.

"One of our biggest takeaways from the game last Wednesday was that we finished with roughly 215 passes. Our goal is to get like 250 to 280. so it was a big thing to get our pass count up," Hien said. "Trying to move the ball is what this program's built on. There's not a selfish bone in anybody here. Everyone just wanted to see the team win."

Hien's game-tying three-pointer with 3:57 left was an eerily similar scenario to the loss at Citadel, where Hien's layup with 3:20 left tied that game at 61-61. After wilting in Charleston that night, the Paladins willed themselves to victory Sunday. ETSU big man Jalen Haynes tried to body up Hien near the basket, but lost the ball and Slawson got the steal. On the other end, Slawson had a layup roll off but drew a foul and made 1-of-2 free throws to put Furman ahead for good. 

Over the final 3:17, the Paladins missed three layups and four free throws, but Bothwell did make three foul shots and Foster hit one to seal the win. ETSU's final chance to tie came trailing 82-79 with nine seconds left when a pass to the left wing bounced right into the hands of a receiver. Unfortunately for the Bucs, that receiver was Furman football's Joshua Harris sitting in the first row of the student section.

After that Bothwell turnover and subsequent go-ahead three by ETSU with 4:14 left, the Paladins didn't make another turnover and the Bucs didn't make another shot. Furman, which ranks sixth in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio, finished with 20 assists and five turnovers.

"We led for 22 minutes in Charleston and we lose. It was kind of the same feeling tonight. With Marcus and Slaw (on the alley-oop attempt), it's like we're going to go up seven here. It gets deflected, they go down and score and it's back to three," Richey said. "We had to answer some bells tonight. Seymour hits that three and they go up three with all the emotion and all the energy. You could easily go down and have a bad possession and now they have momentum and hope. But man, Garrett steps into a ball and bangs it to tie the game. Then we close the game out."

Foster led five Paladins in double figures with 15 points and had six rebounds, three assists, three steals and a block. J.P. Pegues and Hien each scored 13. Slawson finished with 11 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block, and Alex Williams had 10 points and five rebounds in 16:45 off the bench. Fellow reserve Carter Whitt had four assists and no turnovers in just 9:37.

After scoring only 10 points at Citadel, Furman's bench had 35 Sunday. While Bothwell, Furman's leading scorer, had only two made field goals for the second game in a row, he finished with nine points, four assists and three rebounds. He led the team at plus-six during his time on the court.

"We had 20 assists, which was a huge emphasis coming off of Wednesday's loss. I thought the ball was really sticky in Charleston. I didn't think we played well together. We only turn it over five times tonight and everybody contributed," Richey said. "We'll get some things figured out defensively. We probably need a little bit of rest. We practiced pretty hard last couple days as you would expect."

King had 20 points and four assists to lead ETSU (10-19, 6-10), while Haynes had 18 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three blocks. Seymour added 15 points and nine boards for the Bucs, who were held to 56 points in their home loss to Furman earlier this season. After shooting 33.3 percent from the floor that night, ETSU shot 54.5 percent Sunday.

As Furman looks to keep its hopes for a SoCon regular season championship and No. 1 seed for the SoCon Tournament alive, the Paladins will close out the home portion of their schedule Wednesday against Mercer. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.

"It was great to again see another big-time atmosphere. That could have been the difference tonight. I mean Slaw gets that dunk to go up six and the place erupts. We're thankful for that," Richey said. "We've got to fill this thing up again on Wednesday. Nothing matters except Wednesday. I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to read about it. I don't want to hear anything about it.

"We've got to go 1-0 on Wednesday night. That's all that matters. ... It's the last time we get to come into Timmons Arena, so let's show out for our team, get this place packed and have a lot of fun."

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Old habits haunt Paladins in upset loss at Citadel

Jalen Slawson had 22 points in Furman's 69-65 loss at
The Citadel Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Furman's trip to rival The Citadel Wednesday was a classic case of two teams going in opposite directions. At the time, nobody had more consecutive wins in the Southern Conference than the Paladins' eight while nobody had more consecutive losses than the Bulldogs' five.

Over the course of Wednesday's game, it was difficult to tell which team was on what streak. Coming off a six-point loss at first-place Samford, Citadel outworked, outsmarted and outplayed first-place Furman to earn a 69-65 win. While those main two streaks ended Wednesday, so did the Paladins' six-game road winning streak this season and nine-game winning streak in the series.

In avenging their 97-72 loss in Greenville earlier this season, the Bulldogs used a classic Furman formula to get the win:

  • Shut down the opposing team's leading scorer
  • Force turnovers
  • Dominate in points off turnovers
Citadel held Mike Bothwell, who was averaging 16.8 points per game in league play, to six points on 2-of-5 shooting. The Bulldogs (10-18, 5-10) only forced two more turnovers (12) than Furman did, but outscored the Paladins 14-2 off them. On a perplexing night of basketball, nothing was more perplexing than Furman only getting two points of 10 forced turnovers. For this program, that's unacceptable.

"The team that played the hardest and with the best spirit won the game," Furman coach Bob Richey said on the Furman Radio Network's postgame show. "It's disappointing. I can't sit here and tell you I saw it coming. I thought we've had pretty good practices and we've been in a pretty good routine. ... This won't be the end-all, be-all. It's obviously a bad loss for us, but give them a lot of credit. They played phenomenal."

Old habits from earlier this season that the Paladins (21-7, 12-3) had seemingly overcome since the calendar flipped to 2023 resurfaced Wednesday. Those were primarily getting outworked on the glass and getting lay-upped to death. While each team had 33 rebounds Wednesday, Furman entered leading the SoCon in rebounding margin (+3.5) while Citadel (-5.2) ranked last. The Paladins, who were coming off a 53-rebound effort against Western Carolina, outrebounded the Bulldogs, 40-26, in the first meeting.

Much like turnovers and the points off them told a story, so did offensive rebounds. Furman finished with 11 offensive boards, while the Citadel had 10. However, the Bulldogs had a 14-9 edge in second-chance points. They finished with 40 points in the paint.

"The most telling stat is the second-chance points. We've done a good job of making sure we get rebounds and not letting other people capitalize on their misses," Richey said. "Tonight, we did a poor job. I just didn't think our composure was where it needed to be tonight.
"Unfortunately, we've seen some games where we didn't have the right composure. We've been down this road a little bit and I really felt like we we're past it. I was kind of surprised to see it kind of creep back in the night. But I've got faith in this group. It's a resilient bunch."

Six of Citadel's offensive rebounds were grabbed by 6-foot-9 senior Brady Spence, who entered Wednesday averaging 2.9 points and 2.2 rebounds per game. Spence, who had taken a total of 13 shots in SoCon play and not played more than 14 minutes in any game this season, finished with a season-high 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting and career-highs in rebounds (12), blocked shots (4) and assists (2) in 30 minutes.

The Bulldogs' Stephen Clark, who leads the SoCon in scoring in league play, had 21 points, seven rebounds, four blocked shots and four steals. Citadel's eight blocks were the most by a Furman opponent in league play since Clark had five of Citadel's eight in Charleston two years ago. The Bulldogs' nine steals were the most by a Furman league opponent this season.

As had been the case for much of its winning streak, Furman came firing out of the gate. The Paladins made their first six shots from the floor to take a 14-8 lead less than four minutes in. On the other side of the court though, all eight of Citadel's points came on layups and it had two offensive rebounds in that span. Both turned out to be a bad sign of things to come for Furman.

After going 6-for-6 to start the game, the Paladins shot 36.7 percent (18-of-49) the rest of the way. Furman led for more than 18 minutes in the first half and by as many as seven with 3:41 left. But just as they did in their loss at Western Carolina on New Year's Eve, the Paladins closed the first half on a whimper. Clark's layup with three seconds left cut Furman's lead to 36-34 at the half.

The Paladins kept the lead for the first 10 minutes of the second half, but every time it seemed like one of those 13-2 runs Furman can quickly go on was about to ignite, Citadel had an answer. Furman could never get the lead larger than five.

After a block by Spence midway through the second half, Clark knocked down a three to give the Bulldogs their first lead of the second half. Jalen Slawson hit a pair of free throws to tie the game 54-54 with 8:56 left, but Clark answered with a dunk.

Citadel held the lead for the next five minutes, which included a play than encapsulated Bothwell's night. A Garrett Hien block led to a rare fast break opportunity for Furman. Bothwell drove to the basket, withstood contact and got the layup to drop. That should've given Furman a 61-60 lead and sent Bothwell to the line with 4:56 left. Instead Bothwell was called for a charge and the basket waved off. Replays showed that Bothwell did absolutely nothing to warrant a charge call. Didn't put his shoulder down. Didn't go in there like a bull in a China shop. It was a typical "and-one" play that anyone who's ever watched basketball has seen 1,000 times.

Nevertheless, one bad call never decides a game and as bad as it played Wednesday, Furman still had chances to win. Hien's three-pointer tied the game at 61-61 with 3:20 left, but Spence answered with a putback with 2:44 left gave the Bulldogs the lead for good. On the ensuing possession, Slawson's layup was rejected by Clark.

Citadel had two turnovers over the next 90 seconds, but all the Paladins could do with those was miss the front end of a one-and-one free throw and turn it back over. Clark's jumper made it a four-point lead with 44 seconds left. Furman missed a pair of three-pointers on its ensuing possession but got the rebound off each one and Slawson ended up hitting a three to cut the lead to 65-64 with 23 seconds left.

Elijah Morgan hit two free throws for Citadel to push the lead to 67-64 with 17 seconds left. Bothwell, who's hit so many clutch shots in the final seconds of games in his brilliant Furman career, drove to the basket and drew a foul. He missed the first free throw and made the second to cut the lead to two with 11 seconds left.

On the Bulldogs' ensuing possession, Furman had to immediately foul. The only Paladin with more than two fouls was Bothwell with four. Inexplicably, Bothwell was the one who fouled Morgan with nine seconds left to foul out with six points, four rebounds and four assists in 34 minutes. Morgan again hit both free throws. J.P. Pegues missed a three-pointer and Citadel got the rebound to complete the upset.

"Three minutes to go and it's a tie game. You've got to go find a way to get it done. And we're missing free throws and giving up offensive rebounds," Richey said. "We had nine turnovers and seven assists in the second half. That just tells you we resorted a little bit to one-on-one basketball, trying to make hero plays, not trusting the spacing in the system."

In his final game near his hometown of Summerville, Slawson finished with a game-high 22 points, five rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals. He made 7-of-8 free throws, while the rest of the Paladins made 1-of-5. Hien finished with 11 points, while Pegues had 10. No other Furman player scored more than six points. The bench, which had been a key part of the Paladins' winning streak, combined for 10 points.

"It's a tough night, but it won't define our season or take away everything we've done," Richey said. "It's going to be critical that we move forward and we make sure we get things corrected for the tournament. But we've got three big games left, so we got to make sure we finish well."

In a battle of the other two teams in first place Wednesday, Samford rallied to beat UNC Greensboro. That leaves Furman's fate entirely in its own hands. If the Paladins win the final three games of the regular season, including the finale at Samford, they will be SoCon champions and the No. 1 seed for SoCon Tournament.

The first of those final three come Sunday when Furman's hosts East Tennessee State at 6 p.m. on ESPNU. It will be Senior Night at Timmons Arena as Bothwell, Slawson and walk-on Rett Lister will be honored.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Furman avenges earlier loss in dominant fashion

A packed house at tip-off made for one of the best atmospheres Timmons Arena has ever
had for Furman's 93-59 win over Western Carolina Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

What a difference a year makes.

In the second game of the Southern Conference schedule this season, Furman rang in 2023 on a downer as its 13-game winning streak against Western Carolina ended. In that 79-67 loss in Cullowhee on New Year's Eve, the Paladins had a total of 21 rebounds, two bench points and saw a nine-point second half lead disappear under a decisive 20-3 Catamount run.

In the rematch Saturday at Timmons Arena, Furman showed off a serious case of "new year, new me." The Paladins matched their season-high with 53 rebounds, had 27 bench points and never lost the lead after scoring the first 14 points of the game.

Saturday's game got a bit of a late start as the preceding women's game ran a bit long. That just gave fans a longer window to get to their seats. By the time tip-off arrived, sold out Timmons Arena actually looked like a sell out. It was packed and the crowd was loud. After the lights came back on following the introduction of Furman's starters, Paladins' coach Bob Richey kind of gazed at the crowd and soaked it in.

"I've been here since 2011 and I've never seen it like that. I've seen some good crowds in here. There's no doubt. But I'm convinced that's the most people I've ever seen in this arena in pregame," Richey said. "It just seemed like there were people everywhere. It's just fun when you get that type of atmosphere, but it's like I told the team before we went out there, 'go give them something to cheer for. ... If you play hard, they'll get into it.' Give our guys credit because they did. Our defensive focus was incredible to start the game.

"They (Western) can really put a lot of stress on your defense. For us to be able to hold them to 59, that's a credit to our defense and that's what's different. This team has always been good, but the reason we've been able to to get to where we have a chance to be an elite, championship team is the defensive focus and the rebounding. We've just grown so much in that area. ... In Cullowhee, they just drove us all night long and just shot layup after layup after layup. Tonight, we we're able to sit down and guard the ball and, for the most part, did it a little more cleanly in the second half without fouling."

Playing in front of a sold-out crowd that's as hyped as Saturday's was can sometimes make for a nervous, sloppy start. Not Saturday. Not for this bunch of Paladins (21-6, 12-2) that have raced out of the starting gate for much of its eight-game winning streak. Much like it did in avenging its earlier loss to UNC Greensboro, Furman was dialed in on both sides of the floor from the start.

In that win at UNCG on Jan. 29, the Paladins led 16-5 four minutes into the game. On Saturday, they led 14-0 four minutes in. Marcus Foster's three-pointer made it 9-0 and forced a Western timeout, but that didn't stem the tide. After Mike Bothwell converted a three-point play off a feed from Garrett Hien, Bothwell returned the favor with a dish to Hien for a dunk.

"I just want to thank the fans for coming out. It's my last game on a Saturday in Timmons, so for it to be one of the biggest crowds I've seen I'm very thankful and appreciative of our supporters, students and fans in the community," Bothwell said. "It's hard to lose in Timmons when it's like that, so it was really fun."

Furman stretched the lead to 27-10 on Jalen Slawson's jumper midway through the first half before the Catamounts (14-13, 7-7) clawed their way back in it. Western sliced the lead to 35-30 with 2:19 left before J.P. Pegues, Slawson and Foster made layups in the final two minutes to give the Paladins a 41-31 lead at the break.

That's the same amount of points Furman had in the first half at Cullowhee, when it shot 65.2 percent from the floor. On Saturday, the Paladins shot just 42.4 percent in the opening half but there seemed to be a less uneasy feeling than at halftime at Western. Probably because Furman had more rebounds (24) and bench points (10) in the opening half than it did in the entire game in the first meeting.

"I think our composure, which is also connected with your confidence, has gotten way better as this year's gone on. I'm a huge believer that those two things are intertwined. Usually losing composure is a lack of belief. The two go hand in hand. You lose composure because things aren't going your way," Richey said. "When you can play this game with confidence, you can absorb a team's run. You can absorb the run they went on in the first half where they cut the margin down. You've got to stay composed, stay confident and continue to compete. I think that's where this team has really grown."

The Paladins led by eight early in the second half before going on a 17-0 run over a 5:22 stretch to extend the lead to 61-36 with 13:03 left. Furman never led by fewer than 21 the rest of the way. The Paladins had 21 assists and six turnovers while the Catamounts had just two assists and eight turnovers. After getting outrebounded 27-10 in the second half in Cullowhee, Furman won Saturday's rebounding battle, 53-39. That matches the season high in rebounding set in the win over Chattanooga Feb. 1.

Slawson and Foster led five Paladins in double figures with 17 points apiece. Slawson also had eight rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocked shots. Foster hit 3-of-4 three-pointers for a nice bounce back game. Foster, who ranks second in the SoCon in three-point shooting in league play (43.9 percent), had made just one three over his previous two games.

Perhaps no player symbolized the turnaround this game offered from the first matchup more than Foster, who had no points and one board at Western. He was one of six Paladins with at least five rebounds Saturday as he grabbed seven.

"We've been on a great roll and rebounding well. It really just carried over. Everybody's just been crashing the boards," Foster said. "We looked like a completely different team today (from the first meeting). I can't even believe how far we've come. I'm just so proud of this group."

Bothwell finished with 16 points, three assists, one steal and no turnovers, while Tyrese Hughey and Alex Williams scored 11 and 10 off the bench, respectively. Hughey also had six rebounds. Hien had nine points. Pegues posted seven points, a career-high nine rebounds, seven assists, two steals and just one turnover. Ben VanderWal added six points and seven rebounds. He also drew seven fouls, but hit only 4-of-9 free throws.

Saturday's win ensured that Furman won't be swept by a SoCon opponent this year for the first time since the 2019-20 season. Its the fourth time in the last eight years that the Paladins will have not been swept by any opponent. The last time it happened prior to that stretch was the 1990-91 SoCon regular season championship team.

"The youth of our team has had time to get experience and get better. There's nothing that develops players more than playing. You have to be able to trust that and get film on it. We've been able to see their confidence grow," Richey said. "Our depth is continuing to improve. Five of our nine (players in the rotation) are underclassmen. I don't think they're done improving."

Coming off a 47-point showing in Western's double-overtime win at Wofford, Tre Jackson scored 27 to Saturday to earn SoCon Player of the Week honors. After scoring 30 against the Terriers, Vonterius Woolbright had eight points on 2-of-12 shooting and eight rebounds for the Catamounts, who played without injured leading scorer Tyzhaun Claude.

Next up for Furman is a trip to Charleston Wednesday to take on rival The Citadel at 7 p.m. The Bulldogs (9-18, 4-10) are on a five-game losing streak, but had a solid showing at Samford last time out. Citadel trailed 72-70 with seven seconds left before losing 76-70. Furman won the first meeting against the Bulldogs in Greenville, 97-72, on Jan. 4. Samford and UNCG, who are tied for first place in the SoCon with Furman, face off Wednesday in Birmingham.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Paladins claim another 20-win season in style

Carter Whitt had eight points and a career-high 10 assists in Furman's
94-63 win at VMI Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

VMI's defensive game plan was obvious from the start Wednesday night against Furman. The Keydets packed the paint and dared the Paladins to beat them with three-pointers. For the first 14 minutes, that plan didn't work great but it wasn't awful. Southern Conference first-place Furman made five of its first 15 threes, but last-place VMI only trailed 25-19.

Then six of the greatest minutes of Paladin basketball in recent memory took place. Furman made 10 of its last 11 shots - including five 3-pointers - as part of a 29-4 run to take a 31-point lead into halftime. The Paladins finished with 30 assists on 36 made field goals in cruising to a 94-63 win.

It's the seventh consecutive win for Furman (20-6, 11-2) and its sixth straight road win. Only second-ranked Houston's current eight-game road streak is longer in Division I. The victory also gave the Paladins a 20-win season for the 15th time in school history. Six of those have come over the last seven years, with the only blip during that time being the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season in which Furman went 16-9.

"(VMI's defense) just stagnated us for a little while. We were a little caught off guard as it's a unique way to play, but we just tried to emphasize to get the ball moving. More importantly, we focused on getting stops, securing the glass and getting out and running," Coach Bob Richey said on the Furman Radio Network's postgame show. "Everybody's going to choose to play us a different way and that's the way they chose. We got 30 assists and made 17 threes. That's a lot of threes - 45 in the air, but when you shoot 38 percent you can take 100 of them. That's just good math."

The Keydets (6-20, 1-12) were leaving Furman so wide open from three that it was seemingly all the Paladins shot for most of the first half. Over the first 16 minutes, Furman attempted a total of five two-pointers. Only one of those came in a half-court set on offense - a beautiful give-and-go feed from Garrett Hien to J.P. Pegues for a dunk with eight minutes left. The others were two putback layups off missed threes, a Mike Bothwell layup off a Jalen Slawson block and a Slawson dunk off a Pegues' steal.

Carter Whitt started the 29-4 run on a three-pointer with six minutes left. Then Alex Williams hit back-to-back threes followed by a Pegues' three. Those four straight made threes loosened things up a little inside and Furman noticed. Five different Paladins made layups over their next six possessions before Pegues drained a three at the halftime buzzer to make it 54-23. The only miss over Furman's final 11 shots of the half resulted in an offensive rebound and a pair of free throws for Ben VanderWal.

For the half, the Paladins were 20-of-31 (64.5 percent) from the floor. They made 10-of-21 three-pointers and 10-of-10 twos, all of which were layups and dunks. Not to be overlooked in that offensive onslaught should be Furman's defense. Over the final 11:30 of the first half, VMI went 3-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers.

"If you go back and look at that run, it's going to be a lot of stops to transition. They weren't really able to sit on their heels in those gaps," Richey said. "I was a little frustrated early. It felt like there were no drives, no punch dribbles, no box touches. It was just pass it, pass it, pass it, fire it. We're just better in rhythm, even if its just a one hard punch dribble and kick it. Those are the ones that start falling."

Furman opened the second half with a three by Slawson and a putback layup by Marcus Foster to take its biggest lead of the night at 59-23.

About the only drama still left was to see if the Paladins would miss a two-pointer. The consecutive made streak ended at 12 when Tyrese Hughey lost control of the ball on his way up for an open dunk with 13:25 left. With four minutes left, Slawson missed a little turnaround jumper in the paint in which he was probably fouled but there was mercifully no whistle. Whitt missed a dunk with 21 seconds left and that was it. A total of three misses on 22 attempts inside the arc for Furman, while eight different Paladins made 17-of-45 threes.

Furman got 46 bench points led by Williams, who finished with a game-high 18 points and eight rebounds. Hughey had 12 points, while Whitt and VanderWal each had eight also off the bench. Whitt dished out 10 assists, topping his previous career-high of nine set against Florida State when he played for Wake Forest.

"I'm just really proud of (Whitt) and him buying in to how we play here. He's good at it. He's done a better job of keeping his feet on the floor and man, he's really just fun to watch," Richey said. "When he gets an open floor, you get to a point where you don't know what's about to happen but it's about to be good."

Bothwell finished with 14 points, while Pegues had 13 and two steals. Slawson had 11 points, four rebounds, four assists and three blocks in 20 minutes. Facing a VMI team that had outrebounded each of its previous seven SoCon opponents, the Paladins won that battle, 38-33.

Furman will look to avenge a loss at Western Carolina when it hosts the Catamounts at 2 p.m. Saturday. Western Carolina (14-12, 7-6) is coming off a 95-91 double overtime win at Wofford Wednesday. The Catamounts had only five scorers and two bench points Wednesday at Tre Jackson poured in 47 points and Vonterius Woolbright had 30 points and 13 rebounds.

Saturday's matchup is the Ingles Game of the Week and will be televised by Nexstar regional affiliates, including CW62 in the Upstate. The men's game will follow the Furman women's game against UNC Greensboro, which is set to tip off at 11:30 a.m.

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Surging Paladins sweep Wofford again

Alex Williams dunks for two of his 15 points in Furman's 80-67 win
over Wofford at The Well Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Happy days were finally here again for the Furman basketball program just before Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson showed up. The Paladins won 23 games for the second consecutive season in 2017-18, the final one before the dynamic duo arrived in Greenville. While Furman had one win over Wofford in each of those seasons, the thought of two wins over its rival from Spartanburg in the same regular season seemed far fetched.

Four years removed from Davidson's departure from the Southern Conference, the Terriers were firmly entrenched as the class of the league back then. At that time, the last group of Paladins who could say they swept a season series over Wofford were the 2005-06 team.

After Saturday's 80-67 win before a record crowd at Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Bothwell and Slawson can say they've swept the Terriers - again. Playing before a Furman home record crowd of 6,199, the Paladins raced out to a 20-6 lead over the first nine minutes Saturday before cruising to its sixth consecutive win this season and fourth straight victory over Wofford.

"The crowd energy that we had in there with over 6000 in attendance. At this level, that's unheard of in a lot of situations. ... The energy that you saw in the game, (the crowd) helps. I think that was a big part of the great start," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "Outside of the first four minutes after halftime, I thought we played pretty good defensively. We knew we were gonna have to be better defensively than we were the first time we played (a 96-82 win in Spartanburg).

"Great game by Jalen Slawson. I thought he impacted the game in a lot of different ways. He was locked in defensively. Offensively, he hit shots from the perimeter but was also able to be a threat in the post."

Coming off earning SoCon Player of the Month honors for January, Slawson made another brilliant early campaign stop for the February election. He had 16 points, nine rebounds, four steals, one assist and one blocked shot Saturday. That came after putting up 15 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, four steals and two blocks in Furman's win over Chattanooga last Wednesday. Those efforts helped him be recognized as the SoCon Player of the Week.

The last time Furman (19-6, 10-2) swept the season series with Wofford (13-12, 5-7) in consecutive years was the final time the teams played a home-and-home series each year long before the Terriers joined the SoCon. That was back in Wofford's NAIA days 52 years ago. So there has to be a sense of accomplishment for Slawson and Bothwell, whose teams went 1-6 against Wofford over their first three seasons at Furman.

"It absolutely means a lot. We don't like those guys and they don't like us," Slawson said. "We've really worked to get the series to this point."

That one win in those first seven games against Wofford came in their sophomore season when Bothwell's shot in the final seconds lifted the Paladins to a one-point win at The Well. In last season's meeting at The Well, Furman held on for another one-point win.

On Saturday, it became evident pretty quickly that there would be no need for final second heroics this time around. Slawson had two rebounds, a steal and three layups in the opening 3:45, the last of which forced a Wofford timeout as Furman led 8-0.

When Mike Bothwell hit a putback with 14:11 left, the Paladins led 15-3. That marked the third consecutive game that every Furman starter had at least one made field goal by the six-minute mark of the game.

"It definitely feels good to see the first (shot) go through. The best way you enable yourself to do that is to get stops and we did that," Slawson said. "It took them a while to get their first basket and they're a really good team. They scored 80-something on us at Wofford, so we did a really good job on the defensive end tonight. We were really locked in from the jump."

Once the starters provided a cushion, the bench helped extend the lead. After Alex Williams rebounded his own miss, he found Carter Whitt, who got the assist on Ben VanderWal's three that made it 20-6. After a Slawson layup, VanderWal banged another three to push the lead to 25-8. With 5:39 left in the half, Williams drained a three to make it a 32-16 advantage.

The Paladins led by as many as 19 in the opening half and took a 42-25 lead into halftime. Furman shot 52.9 percent (18-of-34) and had offensive rebounds on six of those 16 missed shots as it outrebounded Wofford, 20-10, overall in the first half.

"Confidence is just continuing to grow. The rotation is pretty set. Guys know what their roles are and what's expected. They're believing in one another, in themselves and in the system," Richey said. "Belief is a funny thing. When you start to believe in who you are and what you do and it's real, you're practicing consistently and coming out here and getting a consistent defensive effort. Then you can go just cut loose on offense.

"In the first half, we got 100 percent of their misses and 40 percent of our misses. It's just a credit to our team. It's something they've bought into. ... I think with this group. we're capable of being an elite rebounding team. Not just a good rebounding team, elite."

The only lull for the Furman Saturday came when Wofford opened the second half with an 8-0 run to cut the lead to single digits at 42-33. But the Paladins answered when Garrett Hien hits a pair of free throws - Furman's first foul shots of the game - and Slawson followed with a three-pointer.

Despite quite a few missed shots by the Paladins in the second half, the Terriers never got the lead under 10 again. Nearly every time Wofford had a field goal that could've ignited something, Furman had an immediate, equal answer:

  • Wofford's Corey Tripp hit a shot in the paint to cut the lead to 52-37 with 14:59 left. Just 24 seconds later, Williams made a shot in the paint.
  • Wofford's Amarri Tice made a layup, got fouled and converted the three-point play to cut the lead to 54-40 with 13:44 left. Just 10 seconds later, Williams made a layup, got fouled by Tice and hit the foul shot.
  • Wofford big man B.J. Mack drained a three-pointer with 4:19 left to cut the lead to 70-60. Just 17 seconds later, Furman big Hien nailed a three.

It seems that on a given night just about anyone coming off Furman's bench can be a serious scoring threat. On Saturday, it was Williams who had 15 points in 21 minutes.

"That's just the depth of our team. We have a lot of guys that can do multiple things," Williams said. "We don't really think about it like 'who's going to score the most coming off the bench tonight?' We go out there and just play hard."

J.P. Pegues' transformation from a new starting point guard into a slam dunk All-SoCon point guard continued as he had 13 points, seven assists, no turnovers and no fouls. Bothwell had 10 points, five rebounds and two steals, while Hien finished with nine points. Marcus Foster and VanderWal each scored eight.

"Young guys continue to step up off the bench. Alex Williams was huge. Ben VanderWal's first half back-to-back threes were huge," Richey said. "What J.P. Pegues is doing is just incredible. And Mike was Mike. He didn't have the shooting night he wanted to have, but he did some great stuff to help us get a win."

Furman had 15 assists and six turnovers, while forcing 15. That comes after only forcing six in Spartanburg. The Paladins outscored Wofford 21-4 in points off turnovers.

Up next for Furman is a trip to VMI Wednesday for a 7 p.m. tip-off.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Defense powers Furman to win over Chattanooga

Jalen Slawson had 15 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, four steals and two blocks
in Furman's 79-58 win over Chattanooga Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Furman knew it would need a different type of game plan in its rematch with Chattanooga Wednesday at Timmons Arena. When the teams met two weeks earlier, Mocs' standout Jake Stephens played the entire game but suffered a broken hand somewhere along the way and hasn't played since. Chattanooga first-year coach Dan Earl, who coached Stephens at VMI, had his entire offense running through the seven-foot grad transfer.

After the Mocs came out of the gate draining threes, any adjustments the Paladins made defensively worked like a charm the rest of the night. Furman held Chattanooga to 33.3 percent shooting and its lowest scoring output of the season in a 79-58 win. Ole Miss is the only other team to hold the Mocs under 60 points. Chattanooga, which entered leading the country in three-point makes averaging 11.5 per game, hit five of its first eight threes Wednesday but made just 4-of-15 the rest of the way.

"We got off to a pretty rough start defensively, but finally in the middle the half it started turning a little bit. We were scoring early, but we weren't guarding," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "Once we got a little better defensively, we got a little bit of a margin going into halftime. 

"It's a game of mistakes. That's what basketball is. I think where this team has grown the most has been response to mistakes. Understanding correction versus criticism. Getting to the next play, but taking the feedback and making sure we're giving good energy. ... I think you're seeing more connection and communication on the court."

Furman's defense was good enough Wednesday that the Paladins had a 1-for-10 shooting slump AND a 1-for-11 skid in the second half and still won by 21. Two areas of vast improvement for Furman's defense were on display - protecting the paint and cleaning the glass.

The Mocs (12-12, 4-7 Southern Conference) shot just 29.7 percent (11-of-37) from inside the arc and the Paladins won the rebounding battle, 53-32, including 21 offensive boards. It was the most rebounds in a game for Furman (18-6, 9-2) since getting 53 in last season's double overtime win at High Point. It was the most in regulation against a Division I opponent since grabbing 53 in a 101-85 win over The Citadel four years ago.

"I give that credit to (assistant) Coach (Tim) Johnson. He's been really on us in practice about crashing the offensive glass and protecting the defensive glass," said Mike Bothwell, who had a game-high 17 points and a career-high nine rebounds. "Personally, I was just trying to do my job. It was kind of funny today. (Furman women's) Coach Jackie Carson challenged me to get eight rebounds and I one upped her."

Those early three-pointers helped Chattanooga hold a 24-22 lead midway through the first half. Then a came a 63-second highlight reel of Jalen Slawson doing Jalen Slawson things. He grabbed an offensive rebound of his own missed jumper with 9:27 left, then tapped another offensive rebound to Ben VanderWal for an assist on VanderWal's layup.

After a Marcus Foster steal, Slawson took one step in the paint before trying to go over and/or through the Mocs' Randy Brady for a dunk. Slawson didn't get there, but he did draw a foul and knocked down both free throws to give the Paladins a lead it never relinquished. After a Slawson steal on Chattanooga's next possession, he got the ball back on the low post. He faked to his right and made a beautiful, quick drop-step left toward the basket to draw another foul. He made both of those foul shots to push the lead to 28-24 with 8:24 left in the half.

The Mocs cut the lead to 34-30 on their seventh made three with 5:31 left, but they went 0-for-9 from the floor for the rest of the half. Furman went on an 8-1 run over that stretch to take an 11-point lead into halftime.

"I thought that was a critical spell, right there in the last six or seven minutes of the half," Richey said. "Then we came out with a great start to the second half to build the lead, but we knew they'd make a run. They've got some old guys and can really shoot the ball."

That spurt to end the first half turned into a 13-1 run when Slawson began the second half with a dunk and a three sandwiched around his blocked shot on the other end. Tyrese Hughey's dunk with 14:15 left gave Furman a 58-40 lead. Out of the blue, that first cold snap ensued and Chattanooga used a 12-0 run to cut the lead to six with 10:22.

Following seven consecutive missed shots on offense, the Paladins got the ball back to Slawson down low and he was fouled immediately. He snapped the four-minute plus scoring drought by hitting both free throws. After a bad pass on Chattanooga's next possession, Garrett Hien hit Mike Bothwell for a layup. After a Slawson rebound of a Mocs' missed free throw, Bothwell hit a turnaround jumper in the paint. It took all of 54 seconds for Furman to hike that six-point lead back up to 12.

"Our two league losses kind of helped us for games like tonight. In those two losses we were up, then our opponents came back and we freaked out. The bottom fell out for us," Bothwell said. "Tonight, we were able to keep our composure. ... We were able to lock back in to the level that we need to play at."

J.P. Pegues hit four free throws and had an assist to Foster on a three-pointer in between those as Furman made it a 13-0 run to take an insurmountable 71-52 lead with 5:37 left. After hitting just 15-of-26 free throws in Sunday's win at UNC Greensboro, the Paladins made 20-of-25 foul shots Wednesday.

"That's the sign of a good team. You've got to be able to absorb runs and make runs," Richey said. "There was a lot of good out there. The rebounding was great. It's something we've been emphasizing and it's really been carrying over.

"We're not shooting the ball quite as well, but we're making up for it on the offensive rebounds and at the free throw line. We shoot 41 percent, including 25 percent from three. That's not good, but you score 79 points so we're finding ways to score."

Slawson, who earned SoCon Player of the Month honors for January, opened February by filling up the boxscore. He finished with 15 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, four steals and two blocks. Foster had 13 points and five rebounds, while Pegues had 12 points and three assists. All nine regulars in Furman's rotation had at least three rebounds. Nine different Paladins combined for 19 assists, the last of which was by walk-on Rett Lister with 13 seconds left to give the home crowd one final thrill.

While Furman had 14 turnovers and Chattanooga had 12, the Paladins had an 18-9 edge in points off turnovers. That's a testament to the kind of "next play" mentality Furman played with, especially on defense.

"The main focus for us was making sure we didn't take them lightly just because they were missing their best player," Foster said. "We probably struggled a little bit getting adjusted to a different lineup. ... Once we got going and coach got on us, he lit a fire in us and we were able to execute a high level."

Dalvin White and Jamaal Walker led the Mocs with 15 points apiece. White, who entered as the national leader in assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.76, had two assists and one turnover.

Up next for the Paladins is a Weekend at the Well "white out" doubleheader Saturday at Bon Secours Wellness Arena. The Paladins will face rival Wofford at 6 p.m., following the Furman women's game against the Terriers, which begins at 3 p.m. The men's game will be televised by CBS Sports Network.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Furman downs UNCG, rises to first in the SoCon

J.P. Pegues had 17 points and four assists in Furman's 69-57
win at UNC Greensboro Sunday. Photo courtesy of Furman

GREENSBORO, N.C. - You can't win a basketball game in the first five minutes of either half, but a hot start to each one certainly doesn't hurt your chances. All it took for Furman to have two of its best starts to halves all season was a visit to Greensboro Coliseum Sunday to take on the No. 1-ranked defense in the Southern Conference.

The Paladins jumped out to a 16-5 lead less than five minutes into the game, then opened the second half with a 12-4 run on its way to a 69-57 win at UNC Greensboro. After blowing a 13-point lead with less than eight minutes to play in an overtime loss to the Spartans two weeks earlier in Greenville, Furman never led by fewer than six over the final 18 minutes Sunday.

After beating first-place Samford on Wednesday and first-place UNCG on Sunday, the Paladins (17-6, 8-2) moved into a three-way tie for first in the SoCon. The Spartans (14-9, 8-2), who entered allowing a SoCon-best 59.7 points per game in league play, have allowed 149 points (74.5 per game) against Furman this season.

"We know playing them is a 40-minute game. We learned that lesson the hard way at home, but it was good to see our composure. That's been a key to this team - just staying calm, cool, collected and staying in the moment," Richey said. "I thought we did a great job of that in the second half. In the middle of the first half, we lost our composure for a little while. We got it back and went into the tunnel up four. Then the start out of halftime was big. Give our guys a lot of credit for that."

After Jalen Slawson won the opening tip, J.P. Pegues quickly drove to the hole for a tone-setting layup. At the 15:49 mark, Mike Bothwell became the fifth different Paladin to score as his layup capped that opening 16-5 run. Furman was 6-of-7 from the floor over those first four-plus minutes. The only miss resulted in an offensive rebound by Bothwell and subsequently a three-pointer by Marcus Foster.

The Spartans fought back and took a 32-31 lead with two minutes left in the half. The Paladins had just eight bench points, but those were key. Two of them came on a Tyrese Hughey putback with one minute left that snapped a 32-32 tie and Furman led the rest of the way.

UNCG's Mohammed Abdulsalam cut the lead to 37-35 to open the second half before the Paladins went on a 12-2 spurt. All 12 points were courtesy of Pegues and Garrett Hien, who returned to the starting lineup after missing the Samford game with a head injury suffered early at Wofford. That run was capped by a Pegues' three off a steal by Hien to push Furman's lead to 49-37.

"We know they're a great defensive team, so we knew we had to stay sharp," Pegues said. "The starts to both halves were big. We wanted to come out and throw that first punch and be able to stay in the lead."

The Spartans got the lead down to 56-50 on Abdulsalam's layup with 6:32 left. That gave Abdulsalam a career-high 23 points, but that wrapped up the scoring for UNCG's big man. One minute later, Slawson got a floater to fall and drew Abdulsalam's fourth foul. Slawson completed the three-point play, which began a 10-2 run over the next four minutes to seal the win.

As one might expect with a different outcome, quite a few things went differently Sunday than in Greenville two weeks earlier. Nothing was more different than free throws. Early on it appeared it was going to be a repeat from the first meeting and even though Furman often could not get a foul no matter how much contact it drew, the Paladins stayed composed. UNCG went 9-of-14 from the foul line as the Paladins were called for 17 fouls. In Greenville, the Spartans hit 33-of-41 free throws as Furman was whistled for 29 fouls. Meanwhile, the Paladins made 15-of-26 free throws.

"We had seven fouls pretty fast, so we probably played the last 30 minutes with 10. That beats the heck out of how much we fouled last game (against UNCG)," Richey said. "That's discipline. That's being ahead of plays. With these guys (UNCG), you've got to be ahead of plays. If not, you're going to get ducked in and cracked on ball screen situations."

While Abdulsalam dominated inside, making 9-of-10 field goals and grabbing eight rebounds, he really didn't get much help Sunday. No other Spartan had more than seven points or more than three boards. Leading scorer Keyshaun Langley, who had 24 points in Greenville and was averaging 13.9 per game. had four points. Second-leading scorer Keondre Kennedy, who scored 17 at Furman and was averaging 12.9 per game, scored six. Third-leading scorer Mikeal Brown-Jones, who scored 15 in Greenville and was averaging 11.1 per game, had four. Fourth-leading scorer Bas Leyte, who had 14 points at Furman, scored six.

At Furman, UNCG made 7-of-14 three-pointers. On Sunday, it made 2-of-12. The last of those two makes came with 20 seconds left to harmlessly cut the final deficit to 12.

"(Langley's) a really good shooter. He came to Greenville and kind of put his team on his back, so coming in today we just wanted to try to contain him a little bit and make him take some tougher shots," Pegues said. "We ended up having to switch some matchups, so credit to Mike Bothwell. He really stepped it up on the defensive end. I think as a whole, the team did a really good job on the defensive end."

Pegues finished with 17 points, four assists and drew seven fouls to lead Furman. Slawson had 15 points and five rebounds, while Bothwell and Foster each scored 10. Foster added three steals. Hien, who had struggled a bit before suffering the injury at Wofford, had a solid return with nine points, four rebounds and no turnovers. Furman starters had just three turnovers combined.

"Garrett played great. I teased him about missing four free throws to keep us from having five double-figure scorers, but everything he did outside of free throw shooting was phenomenal," Richey said. "All nine (players in the rotation) are going to help us and that's been that's been the difference. We've got nine guys that are ready to go. ... Tonight, we decided to go a little bigger. Some games we'd go a little bit smaller, but that's the beauty of team and having guys who are willing to do it."

Next up for Furman will be Chattanooga (12-11, 4-6) at home Wednesday. Tip-off at Timmons Arena is scheduled for 7 p.m.