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."

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