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.

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