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.

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