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.

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