Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Paladins hold off ETSU for Senior Night victory

Furman's Mike Bothwell (3), Jalen Slawson (20) and Rett Lister (14) were honored prior to
the Paladins' 83-79 win over ETSU on Senior Night Sunday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Sunday night wasn't the prettiest game for Furman, but it sure beat the loss the Paladins were coming off of. After off a rough night, particularly offensively, last Wednesday in a 69-65 loss at The Citadel, Furman's defense was on the ropes Sunday. It allowed East Tennessee State to post its second-highest point total in Southern Conference play. But when push came to shove, the Paladins shoved hard. They outscored the Buccaneers 8-1 over the final 4:13 of the game to hang on for an 83-79 win on Senior Night at Timmons Arena.

After ETSU missed three consecutive shots in the first five minutes of the game, it never missed more than two in a row - until those last four minutes. The Bucs missed each of their last four field goals, which dropped their second-half shooting mark to 61.5 percent. Furman (22-7, 13-3) joined Gonzaga, Houston and Saint Mary's as the only Division I programs with at least 22 wins in six of the last seven seasons.

"Getting back on the winning side of things, that's the name of the game this time of year. You've just got to find a way to win," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "We've created this expectation that we're supposed to win by X amount, but this league's got really good coaches and really good players. They're all hard. After that performance on Wednesday night, we needed to find a way to get back on the left side of the (win-loss) hyphen.

"You can say we didn't guard as well. There's probably some accuracy to that but I'll tell you what, ETSU played really well. They got going. They were 10-for-20 from three and hit a couple of tough ones. There was some adversity. We got down three late, but we respond and go on a run to close the game out. That's what you have to do."

While Furman has one more home game remaining this season, "Senior Night" was shifted for a weekend game and Mike Bothwell, Rett Lister and Jalen Slawson were honored prior to tip-off. Coming off an upset loss, an emotional pregame ceremony, and playing at an odd time of 6 p.m. on a Sunday on ESPNU seemed to have all the makings of a shaky start and that's exactly what Furman got off to.

"There was a lot of emotion. I've got a ton of love for this place, this program and the people in the building supporting us. ... Obviously Wednesday was a disappointment, but I had a lot of the same emotions. It was my last time playing in my hometown and against my dad's alma mater," Slawson said. "I didn't do a good job leading us on Wednesday, so I just took some of the lessons that we talked about in film and things Coach Richey pointed out to me and tried to apply them today to be a little bit better.

"At the end of the day, we just had to keep the game about the game. That's all that matters - us having one more point than ETSU when the horn goes off."

Slawson and Lister, a walk-on making his first career start in Senior Night tradition, had turnovers on the Paladins' first two possessions. At the 15:08 mark, a third bad pass led to an ETSU three-pointer and the Bucs took what turned out to be their biggest lead at 13-7.

Furman came back and took the lead and maintained it for a long time thanks in large part to not having another turnover for nearly 30 minutes of game clock. By the Paladins' next turnover at the 5:53 mark of the second half, they held a 75-70 lead. That one did ignite a 90-second patch of rough basketball for Furman though, and an 8-0 run by ETSU was the result.

That turnover came when an alley-oop intended for Slawson was tipped away on a great play by the Bucs' Jaden Seymour. That would've been Slawson's third consecutive dunk, which would've likely made a roaring Timmons crowd even louder. A 77-70 lead with that much momentum could've turned the lights out on ETSU. Instead, Seymour dunked a putback on the other end to cut the lead to 75-72.

After Marcus Foster missed a three-pointer, the Bucs got the rebound and Furman committed three fouls over the next 32 seconds. The last of those saw Garrett Hien foul ETSU leading scorer Jordan King on a three-point attempt. King made all three free throws to tie the game with 4:59 left.

On the Paladins' ensuing possession, Mike Bothwell got the ball knocked away from behind. King fired a cross-court pass to Seymour, who knocked down a three and ETSU took its first lead since the 7:57 mark of the first half. That was the Bucs 10th made three in 19 attempts. They entered Wednesday next-to-last in made threes in SoCon play averaging 6.1 per game and went 3-of-21 from beyond the arc against Furman in Johnson City, Tenn.

With momentum clearly on ETSU's side, Furman snatched it right back 17 seconds later. Unfazed by each of their previous mistakes, Bothwell found Hien for a game-tying three on a "Basketball 101" play. Bothwell drove to the basket and drew Hien's man in on a double team. While Bothwell was going through his second consecutive quiet game scoring-wise, the Paladins' leading scorer didn't try to force up a shot. Instead, he made a perfect bounce pass to Hien all alone on the right wing.

"One of our biggest takeaways from the game last Wednesday was that we finished with roughly 215 passes. Our goal is to get like 250 to 280. so it was a big thing to get our pass count up," Hien said. "Trying to move the ball is what this program's built on. There's not a selfish bone in anybody here. Everyone just wanted to see the team win."

Hien's game-tying three-pointer with 3:57 left was an eerily similar scenario to the loss at Citadel, where Hien's layup with 3:20 left tied that game at 61-61. After wilting in Charleston that night, the Paladins willed themselves to victory Sunday. ETSU big man Jalen Haynes tried to body up Hien near the basket, but lost the ball and Slawson got the steal. On the other end, Slawson had a layup roll off but drew a foul and made 1-of-2 free throws to put Furman ahead for good. 

Over the final 3:17, the Paladins missed three layups and four free throws, but Bothwell did make three foul shots and Foster hit one to seal the win. ETSU's final chance to tie came trailing 82-79 with nine seconds left when a pass to the left wing bounced right into the hands of a receiver. Unfortunately for the Bucs, that receiver was Furman football's Joshua Harris sitting in the first row of the student section.

After that Bothwell turnover and subsequent go-ahead three by ETSU with 4:14 left, the Paladins didn't make another turnover and the Bucs didn't make another shot. Furman, which ranks sixth in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio, finished with 20 assists and five turnovers.

"We led for 22 minutes in Charleston and we lose. It was kind of the same feeling tonight. With Marcus and Slaw (on the alley-oop attempt), it's like we're going to go up seven here. It gets deflected, they go down and score and it's back to three," Richey said. "We had to answer some bells tonight. Seymour hits that three and they go up three with all the emotion and all the energy. You could easily go down and have a bad possession and now they have momentum and hope. But man, Garrett steps into a ball and bangs it to tie the game. Then we close the game out."

Foster led five Paladins in double figures with 15 points and had six rebounds, three assists, three steals and a block. J.P. Pegues and Hien each scored 13. Slawson finished with 11 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block, and Alex Williams had 10 points and five rebounds in 16:45 off the bench. Fellow reserve Carter Whitt had four assists and no turnovers in just 9:37.

After scoring only 10 points at Citadel, Furman's bench had 35 Sunday. While Bothwell, Furman's leading scorer, had only two made field goals for the second game in a row, he finished with nine points, four assists and three rebounds. He led the team at plus-six during his time on the court.

"We had 20 assists, which was a huge emphasis coming off of Wednesday's loss. I thought the ball was really sticky in Charleston. I didn't think we played well together. We only turn it over five times tonight and everybody contributed," Richey said. "We'll get some things figured out defensively. We probably need a little bit of rest. We practiced pretty hard last couple days as you would expect."

King had 20 points and four assists to lead ETSU (10-19, 6-10), while Haynes had 18 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three blocks. Seymour added 15 points and nine boards for the Bucs, who were held to 56 points in their home loss to Furman earlier this season. After shooting 33.3 percent from the floor that night, ETSU shot 54.5 percent Sunday.

As Furman looks to keep its hopes for a SoCon regular season championship and No. 1 seed for the SoCon Tournament alive, the Paladins will close out the home portion of their schedule Wednesday against Mercer. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.

"It was great to again see another big-time atmosphere. That could have been the difference tonight. I mean Slaw gets that dunk to go up six and the place erupts. We're thankful for that," Richey said. "We've got to fill this thing up again on Wednesday. Nothing matters except Wednesday. I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to read about it. I don't want to hear anything about it.

"We've got to go 1-0 on Wednesday night. That's all that matters. ... It's the last time we get to come into Timmons Arena, so let's show out for our team, get this place packed and have a lot of fun."

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