Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Surging Paladins sweep Wofford again

Alex Williams dunks for two of his 15 points in Furman's 80-67 win
over Wofford at The Well Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Happy days were finally here again for the Furman basketball program just before Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson showed up. The Paladins won 23 games for the second consecutive season in 2017-18, the final one before the dynamic duo arrived in Greenville. While Furman had one win over Wofford in each of those seasons, the thought of two wins over its rival from Spartanburg in the same regular season seemed far fetched.

Four years removed from Davidson's departure from the Southern Conference, the Terriers were firmly entrenched as the class of the league back then. At that time, the last group of Paladins who could say they swept a season series over Wofford were the 2005-06 team.

After Saturday's 80-67 win before a record crowd at Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Bothwell and Slawson can say they've swept the Terriers - again. Playing before a Furman home record crowd of 6,199, the Paladins raced out to a 20-6 lead over the first nine minutes Saturday before cruising to its sixth consecutive win this season and fourth straight victory over Wofford.

"The crowd energy that we had in there with over 6000 in attendance. At this level, that's unheard of in a lot of situations. ... The energy that you saw in the game, (the crowd) helps. I think that was a big part of the great start," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "Outside of the first four minutes after halftime, I thought we played pretty good defensively. We knew we were gonna have to be better defensively than we were the first time we played (a 96-82 win in Spartanburg).

"Great game by Jalen Slawson. I thought he impacted the game in a lot of different ways. He was locked in defensively. Offensively, he hit shots from the perimeter but was also able to be a threat in the post."

Coming off earning SoCon Player of the Month honors for January, Slawson made another brilliant early campaign stop for the February election. He had 16 points, nine rebounds, four steals, one assist and one blocked shot Saturday. That came after putting up 15 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, four steals and two blocks in Furman's win over Chattanooga last Wednesday. Those efforts helped him be recognized as the SoCon Player of the Week.

The last time Furman (19-6, 10-2) swept the season series with Wofford (13-12, 5-7) in consecutive years was the final time the teams played a home-and-home series each year long before the Terriers joined the SoCon. That was back in Wofford's NAIA days 52 years ago. So there has to be a sense of accomplishment for Slawson and Bothwell, whose teams went 1-6 against Wofford over their first three seasons at Furman.

"It absolutely means a lot. We don't like those guys and they don't like us," Slawson said. "We've really worked to get the series to this point."

That one win in those first seven games against Wofford came in their sophomore season when Bothwell's shot in the final seconds lifted the Paladins to a one-point win at The Well. In last season's meeting at The Well, Furman held on for another one-point win.

On Saturday, it became evident pretty quickly that there would be no need for final second heroics this time around. Slawson had two rebounds, a steal and three layups in the opening 3:45, the last of which forced a Wofford timeout as Furman led 8-0.

When Mike Bothwell hit a putback with 14:11 left, the Paladins led 15-3. That marked the third consecutive game that every Furman starter had at least one made field goal by the six-minute mark of the game.

"It definitely feels good to see the first (shot) go through. The best way you enable yourself to do that is to get stops and we did that," Slawson said. "It took them a while to get their first basket and they're a really good team. They scored 80-something on us at Wofford, so we did a really good job on the defensive end tonight. We were really locked in from the jump."

Once the starters provided a cushion, the bench helped extend the lead. After Alex Williams rebounded his own miss, he found Carter Whitt, who got the assist on Ben VanderWal's three that made it 20-6. After a Slawson layup, VanderWal banged another three to push the lead to 25-8. With 5:39 left in the half, Williams drained a three to make it a 32-16 advantage.

The Paladins led by as many as 19 in the opening half and took a 42-25 lead into halftime. Furman shot 52.9 percent (18-of-34) and had offensive rebounds on six of those 16 missed shots as it outrebounded Wofford, 20-10, overall in the first half.

"Confidence is just continuing to grow. The rotation is pretty set. Guys know what their roles are and what's expected. They're believing in one another, in themselves and in the system," Richey said. "Belief is a funny thing. When you start to believe in who you are and what you do and it's real, you're practicing consistently and coming out here and getting a consistent defensive effort. Then you can go just cut loose on offense.

"In the first half, we got 100 percent of their misses and 40 percent of our misses. It's just a credit to our team. It's something they've bought into. ... I think with this group. we're capable of being an elite rebounding team. Not just a good rebounding team, elite."

The only lull for the Furman Saturday came when Wofford opened the second half with an 8-0 run to cut the lead to single digits at 42-33. But the Paladins answered when Garrett Hien hits a pair of free throws - Furman's first foul shots of the game - and Slawson followed with a three-pointer.

Despite quite a few missed shots by the Paladins in the second half, the Terriers never got the lead under 10 again. Nearly every time Wofford had a field goal that could've ignited something, Furman had an immediate, equal answer:

  • Wofford's Corey Tripp hit a shot in the paint to cut the lead to 52-37 with 14:59 left. Just 24 seconds later, Williams made a shot in the paint.
  • Wofford's Amarri Tice made a layup, got fouled and converted the three-point play to cut the lead to 54-40 with 13:44 left. Just 10 seconds later, Williams made a layup, got fouled by Tice and hit the foul shot.
  • Wofford big man B.J. Mack drained a three-pointer with 4:19 left to cut the lead to 70-60. Just 17 seconds later, Furman big Hien nailed a three.

It seems that on a given night just about anyone coming off Furman's bench can be a serious scoring threat. On Saturday, it was Williams who had 15 points in 21 minutes.

"That's just the depth of our team. We have a lot of guys that can do multiple things," Williams said. "We don't really think about it like 'who's going to score the most coming off the bench tonight?' We go out there and just play hard."

J.P. Pegues' transformation from a new starting point guard into a slam dunk All-SoCon point guard continued as he had 13 points, seven assists, no turnovers and no fouls. Bothwell had 10 points, five rebounds and two steals, while Hien finished with nine points. Marcus Foster and VanderWal each scored eight.

"Young guys continue to step up off the bench. Alex Williams was huge. Ben VanderWal's first half back-to-back threes were huge," Richey said. "What J.P. Pegues is doing is just incredible. And Mike was Mike. He didn't have the shooting night he wanted to have, but he did some great stuff to help us get a win."

Furman had 15 assists and six turnovers, while forcing 15. That comes after only forcing six in Spartanburg. The Paladins outscored Wofford 21-4 in points off turnovers.

Up next for Furman is a trip to VMI Wednesday for a 7 p.m. tip-off.

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