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."

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