Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Aztecs prove too long, too strong for Paladins

Senior walk-on Rett Lister hugs fifth-year senior Mike Bothwell (3) in the final seconds
of Furman's 75-52 loss to San Diego State Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

ORLANDO, Fla. - Furman's basketball team displayed an ability to come back from any kind of deficit in every game in which it faced one this season. Even in its most lopsided loss - a 19-point setback at N.C. State - the Paladins cut a 16-point deficit to five in the first half. So while there was obviously concern when Furman trailed by 14 at the half against fifth-seeded San Diego State in round two of the NCAA Tournament Saturday, there was also plenty of hope for another comeback.

Two days earlier, the 13th-seeded Paladins rallied from a pair of 12-point deficits to stun fourth-seeded Virginia. Unfortunately for the Paladins, the 18th-ranked Aztecs proved to be a different kind of beast from the Cavaliers - or any other opponent this season. Furman never got that lead under 14 and the best season in school history ended with a 75-52 loss at the Amway Center.

Not being able to cut into that lead had nothing to with Furman's hustle. It had everything to do with San Diego State's muscle. The Paladins (28-8) fought hard and never quit, but seemingly every loose ball went to the Aztecs (29-6). Whether it was deflections, blocked shots or a 41-24 rebounding advantage, San Diego State's length and strength was a problem all day.

"Give a lot of credit to San Diego State. I thought they played a really good game. They were very physical. They obviously were able to do some damage to us inside and then they started getting comfortable from the perimeter," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "Unfortunately, it wasn't our night. We wish we would have played better and just shot the ball better, but some of that you have to give credit to them.

"There's nothing that can take away with this group is done. It's an unbelievable story and I couldn't be more proud of our team. In a time where I'm extremely disappointed that we didn't advance, it's really hard to not pull the lens back a little bit and still see what this group was able to accomplish. And for that, I'll be forever grateful."

The ironic part of Saturday's outcome is unlike those losses to N.C. State, Penn State and Old Dominion this season, Furman didn't find itself buried in a hole out of the gate. The Paladins led 16-12 nearly nine minutes into the game. With 7:45 left in the first half, Furman only trailed 19-17 and was outrebounding the Aztecs 11-10. San Diego State outrebounded Furman 10-3 the rest of the half and 31-13 the rest of the game.

After Furman took that 16-12 lead on a Jalen Slawson three-pointer, the Aztecs went on an 18-1 run over the next 7:30 of the game. After Slawson's three with 11:17 left, the Paladins went 0-for-7 from the floor and had four turnovers, until Mike Bothwell hit a tough jumper with 23 seconds left. Of course, San Diego State had an answer when Matt Bradley made a jumper as the final seconds ticked off to push the Aztecs' lead to 39-25 at the break. Micah Parrish, San Diego State's sixth man who was averaging 7.6 points per game, had 14 points in the final 8:35 of the half.

"We're up 16-12, playing pretty well and we foul a three-point shooter. I thought it really affected our energy. ... The ball quit moving and we were over-dribbling and it was a little bit what they were scheming us to do," Richey said. "Then we had not just turnovers, but what we call bad-shot turnovers - bad shots that are basically just like a turnover. I thought they were able to play in transition, and they were able to get the game up and down a little bit instead of having to score in half court. I thought our half court defense initially was good."

Everything that could go wrong went wrong for Furman in the second half. A two-minute, four second stretch early on perfectly summarized the second half for the Paladins. Slawson, who had one foul in the first half, picked up his third foul setting a screen with 16:39 left. Twelve seconds later, he was whistled for his fourth foul on a box out and left the game. Five seconds later, Marcus Foster was called for a shooting foul. Bradley hit 1-of-2 free throws to push the lead to 47-28.

The teams traded baskets, with San Diego State getting a Lamont Butler dunk following an offensive rebound. A foul by the Aztecs at the 14:56 mark halted play for a media timeout. Richey spent most of the timeout arguing about the fourth foul on Slawson with an official. Coming back from the break, that same official called a pair of fouls on San Diego State four seconds apart. So after three fouls on the Aztecs on this one Furman possession, it looked like the Paladins were finally going to capitalize when Garrett Hien went in for a dunk. But San Diego State's Aguek Arop made a clean blocked shot with 14:35 left. That led to a layup on the other end to extend the lead to 51-30.

"They did a really good job gapping us. We're a downhill team and use drives to create for one another, so credit to them for their gaps," Slawson said. "They kept us from driving, kept the ball out of the paint, kept a really sharp floor and played really hard."

The lead grew to 23 before Slawson returned with 11:52 left, but the Southern Conference Player of the Year didn't last long. With 10:01 left and the Paladins trailing 58-37, he fouled out. After the call was made, Slawson turned away from the official who made the call, yelled "on my God!" and stamped his right foot down in frustration. Salt was thrown in the wound when a different official several feet away assessed a technical.

If you somehow believe that was worthy of a technical foul, I suggest bringing plenty of pearls to clutch next time you ever sit near a team's bench and coaches during a game.

Unlike two days earlier when Slawson went on a personal 9-0 run after Bothwell fouled out, Furman could not put much of a dent in the lead after Slawson fouled out. The Paladins got the deficit down to 18 over the next couple of possessions, but trailed by at least 20 over the final eight minutes.

"Once they were able to open up the margin, I thought they settled in and got a little bit comfortable. Our guys kept trying. I'm really proud of how they kept fighting. To see Garrett Hien dive on a loose ball with a couple of minutes to go, that's the pride of the jersey," Richey said. "But we just could not catch a rhythm. ... To see them continue to fight and to see them continue to compete, it made me a proud coach."

After being tied 10-10 on points in the paint with 10 minutes left in the first half, the Aztecs had a 30-6 edge in the paint the rest of the way. It was Furman's most lopsided loss since a 79-56 defeat at ETSU on Dec. 29, 2018. The Paladins, who were averaging 81.7 points per game, were held to their lowest output since a 66-52 loss at Wofford on Jan. 17, 2020.

The road was undoubtedly going to tough for Furman as a No. 13 seed, but no other team faced a pair of coaches ranked in the top 20 in winning percentage among active coaches in the tournament. After Thursday's result, Richey and Virginia's Tony Bennett had flipped their positions on that list to 10th and 11th, respectively. After Saturday's result, fourth-place Brian Dutcher of San Diego State (.763) improved to 148-46.

Going back to a 62-57 win over Utah State in the Mountain West Tournament championship and a 63-57 win over College of Charleston in Thursday's opening round of the NCAA Tournament, Saturday marked San Diego State's third consecutive game in which it held its opponent to their season-low scoring output. In the MWC semifinals, the Aztecs beat San Jose State, 64-49, which was one point above the Spartans' season-low.

"It was complimentary. We stopped getting stops and when we're taking the ball (off a made shot) every time, it's really hard to have a good flow without getting any transition buckets," Bothwell said. "They made us work for everything we got. We didn't get any easy (baskets) today. That, and missing some open threes stuffed our rhythm. They're known for their defense and physicality and they showed why today on both ends of the floor."

Richey did give the loud, large Furman crowd - which included many former players - one more chance to cheer. After Bothwell hit a three-pointer, Richey called timeout with 19.3 seconds left to get Bothwell out and senior walk-on Rett Lister in.

"I wanted Mike to have a moment and for the crowd to appreciate the fourth all-time leading scorer and most importantly, one of the two winningest players in school history. And I wanted Rett to be able to check in because he's served our program for four years in an incredible way," Richey said. "I wanted him to be able to at least walk out on that court. ... Teams are made up of roles and roles are different, but the value is never different.

"Rett's role is a unique one that he's had to serve without getting a lot of public reward for it. He loves this program as much as any of these guys. Teams become powerful when everybody embraces those roles. Not only do they accept them, they thrive in them. ... That's why we were able to win 15 of 16 and seven in a row after a really tough loss prior to today. ... We had an understanding that the team is always ahead of the individual. To see them embrace that, it's always very, very inspiring as a coach."

After completing the handshake line with San Diego State following the game, Furman players and coaches went over and thanked the fans who attended.

Bothwell finished with a team-high 15 points to lead the Paladins. That late three-pointer pushed him ahead of Karim Souchu into fourth place on Furman's all-time scoring list with 2,016 points in his brilliant career. Slawson finished with eight points in less than 20 minutes of playing time, moving him ahead of Bruce Grimm in 18th place all-time with 1,509.

Alex Williams had 11 points, while J.P. Pegues scored 10 also for Furman. Marcus Foster had four of the Paladins' seven assists - their lowest total in a game since six in a 77-68 loss to Wofford at the 2020 SoCon Tournament.

"I'd like to congratulate Furman University and Coach Richey on a great year. They're a really tough club," Dutcher said. "We prepared hard. We knew they were good. Then we played a really good game today on both ends of the floor."

Friday, March 17, 2023

Purple reigns as Furman ends another drought

J.P. Pegues, rear, and Mike Bothwell hug after Furman's 68-67 win over Virginia
at the NCAA Tournament Thursday in Orlando, Fla. Photo courtesy of Furman

ORLANDO, Fla. - If you go to all the trouble it took to end one 40-plus year drought, you might as well end another. Ten days after J.P. Pegues helped Furman reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 43 years, the Southern Conference Tournament's Most Outstanding Player helped the Paladins win their first NCAA Tournament game in 49 years.

Pegues drilled a three-pointer with 2.4 seconds left to lift No. 13 seed Furman to a stunning 68-67 upset win over fourth-seeded Virginia in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday. It's the second NCAA tourney win in school history. The other came on March 9, 1974 when Clyde Mayes had 21 points and 16 rebounds and Bruce Grimm scored 19 as the Paladins beat South Carolina, 75-67, at The Palestra in Philadelphia.

Furman (28-7) advances to take on San Diego State Saturday at 12:10 p.m. on CBS with a trip to Louisville, Ky. for the Sweet 16 on the line. The fifth-seeded Aztecs denied the Palmetto State a guarantee of having a team advance to the second weekend when they defeated College of Charleston, 63-57, Thursday.

"What an unbelievable college basketball game. All year we've been saying that this team just knows how to win. We knew we were going to have a great opponent in Virginia. We knew there were going to be some disadvantages in terms of their size, in terms of their physicality, the way they rebound, the way they defend," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "It's an unbelievable moment, and give all the glory to God for allowing me to be able to lead it, but this is a day these players just found a way.

"J.P., he didn't make the all-conference team somehow, but he's on the all-winner team because he knows how to win. He had a similar play in high school. That's why we recruited him so hard, because we watched his clutch clips and I watched him do something very similar in a huge state playoff game. When I saw the ball go up, I knew it was going in. What a day to be a Paladin."

Pegues' shot was the kind that will be replayed every March for years to come. But this wasn't your ordinary, game-winning three-pointer to lift a lower seed to an upset kind. It came as the result of a wild sequence for Furman defensively and finished off one of the most amazing victories considering what Furman had to overcome. Midway through the second half, the Paladins trailed by 12 and Virginia (25-8) had twice as many rebounds as they did. Leading scorer Mike Bothwell fouled out with 6:25 left and Furman trailing by six. Furman took its first lead with five minutes to go, but a veteran Cavaliers squad came back to hold a four-point lead with 13 seconds left.

The defensive adjustment

Furman fell behind 8-0 less than two minutes into the game and was down 17-7 midway through the first half. Against Virginia's stingy defense, the Paladins were able to get things going a bit but still trailed 32-27 at the half. Furman was 0-5 when trailing at the half in the regular season, but came back to beat Mercer at the SoCon Tournament thanks to a defensive adjustment. Another defensive adjustment Thursday made the Paladins 2-0 when trailing at the half in the postseason.

With 11:06 left in the game, Furman trailed 52-40 and was getting outrebounded 34-16. The only thing the Cavaliers weren't doing well at that point was shooting the three, but they hadn't really tried to. Virginia was 2-of-5 from three at that point, having just hit both of those over the previous two minutes.

Furman went to a 1-3-1 zone defense and proceeded to outrebound the Cavaliers 15-5 over that final 11:06. Teams faced with a zone will often try to shoot its way out of it, but Virginia simply couldn't. The Cavs went 0-for-7 from three over those last 11 minutes.

"The way you rebound it really well is that you make them take tough shots. We were able to kind of knock them off rhythm a little bit. ... We start forcing some misses and then we were able to board them," Richey said. "We were trying to figure out a way to get them out of what they were doing. I didn't know if it was going to work or not, but at that point in the game I thought we had no choice."
Jalen Slawson had 19 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in Furman's
68-67 win over Virginia Thursday. Photo courtesy of Furman
The Slaw that stirs the drink

Some questionable calls got Bothwell in foul trouble. Most notably, a costly third foul away from the ball where he hit the deck after taking a forearm to the chest. That came with just 51 seconds left in the first half. Furman trailed 40-30 with 16:15 left when Bothwell was called for his fourth foul. The Paladins were down 47-38 with 12:57 left when Richey called Bothwell back to the scorer's table. By the next dead ball for Bothwell to check in, it was 50-38.

Bothwell hit a big three to cut the lead to four and give him 2,001 points in his career. But two minutes later, Bothwell got entangled with Virginia's 6-foot-11 Kadin Shedrick on a lob and was whistled for his fifth foul. Richey buried his face in his hands and spun away from the view. Bothwell's head sunk for a split second, but then looked up. Rather than linger on the court for what may have been his final time as a Paladin, he sprinted toward the bench.

As it turns out, there was a reason Bothwell did that.

"I thought one of the biggest plays of the game didn't happen on the court. It happened when Bothwell fouled out. I was talking to the official and when I walked back in the huddle, Bothwell had the huddle," Richey said. "He said, 'we're going to find a way to win this game.' All these guys to my left (Jalen Slawson, Pegues and Marcus Foster) and the whole locker room just kept believing."

The only other game Bothwell fouled out of this year was Furman's last loss at The Citadel. After Bothwell's fifth foul, Slawson seemed to make it his personal mission for the Paladins to avoid that same result.

The SoCon Player of the Year had a three-point play, rebounded Virginia's next miss, hit a three-pointer, rebounded Virginia's next miss and had another three-point play. Slawson's personal 9-0 run over a 68-second span capped Furman's 19-4 run and gave the Paladins their first lead of the day at 57-54 with 5:02 left.

"As that huddle ended, I told Mike that we weren't going to let today be his last time putting a jersey on. I know if roles were reversed, the same thing would have happened," Slawson said. "These guys told me they believed in me and told me I was being a little bit passive. They told me to be a little bit more aggressive. As the game came, we got some good actions and these guys did a great job of giving me good looks."

The shot

Furman held the lead for the next three-and-half minutes. But after Pegues hit a pair of free throws to push the lead to 63-60 with 2:33 left, the Paladins didn't score for more than two minutes. Virginia freshman Isaac McKneely, a 74 percent foul shooter, missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 35 seconds left. Kihei Clark, an 80 percent foul shooter, hit 1-of-2 free throws to extend the Cavs' lead to 67-63 with 19 seconds left.

On Furman's ensuing possession, Pegues drove to the hole, drew a double team and dished to Garrett Hien who drew a foul. Hien, a 51 percent foul shooter, rattled in the first throw. The second bounced off the front of the rim, the back of the rim and the front again before falling through to cut the lead to 67-65 with 12 seconds left.

Clark, a fifth-year senior who started for Virginia's 2019 national championship team, took a pass in the corner. He was immediately crowded by Pegues and Alex Williams. With the Cavaliers out of timeouts, Clark heaved a long pass that Hien leaped to intercept just beyond midcourt. Hien went from safety to quarterback as he fired a perfect pass to Pegues on the right wing. With ice water in his veins, Pegues drilled the three with 2.4 seconds left.

"Garrett Hien has had some issues with free throws this year, and it's not because he can't shoot them. He just had to believe in it. He went up there with poise and made two huge free throws," Richey said. "We jumped in and had him trapped. I was calling for a foul, but the good Lord knew that they couldn't hear me, and they threw it to us."

For the record, Hien said he never played safety or quarterback, or very much football at all. Just one year as a kicker in seventh grade.

"The ball felt like it was in the air for an eternity. Once I got it, I didn't have much time to think and I saw J.P. wide open and I hit him," Hien said. "He shoots that shot in warm ups every day. He makes it today and the rest is history."

Prior to that game-winner, Pegues had missed each of his last 15 three-point attempts. He certainly saved his best for last Thursday as his shot looked good from start to finish as it splashed through the net.

"We needed to get a steal, a turnover somehow. And we did pretty good denying out, making them force a tough pass, which he did. And he threw it to Garrett Hien. As soon as I saw it go into Garrett's hands, I was like, 'I want the ball,' " Pegues said. "I feel like those are moments I've craved my whole life, and I feel like I'm built for. As soon as I got the ball and saw the shot attempt I had, I knew all I could do at that point was just rise up and shoot it. I had full belief that it was going in and it did."

Hold your breath

There was still time for one more shot for Virginia. Nobody knew that more than Furman after how last season ended. Reece Beekman's long three looked an awful lot like Chattanooga's last year, except from the opposite wing. But this one bounced off the backboard and rim no good and Furman - along with fans from every other team except Virginia - erupted in celebration.

With apologies to Walt Disney World's reputation of being the "happiest place on earth," nobody at Magic Kingdom Thursday was happier than anyone in purple at the Magic's Amway Center.

"I couldn't help but go back, when I saw the shot in the air, to a year ago. To a play that probably still makes it on March Madness. And that ball (Thursday) floated in the air and it missed. It's just a reminder, like we said all year, count it all joy," Richey said. "You don't know the timing of things or the timing of life. It doesn't always go how you want, but this team has persevered and they did it today. It's a microcosm of what they learned. They just keep reliving the lesson and keep finding ways."
Marcus Foster hit four three-pointers and had 14 points in Furman's
68-67 win over Virginia Thursday. Photo courtesy of Furman
Foster delivers

Coming off the SoCon championship game in which Foster hit a pair of big three-pointers down the stretch to seal the win, he continued to stroke it from outside Thursday. After not making more than two threes in a game since hitting 3-of-4 against Western Carolina on Feb. 11, Foster hit 4-of-9 Thursday. It's the most threes for Foster in a game since going 6-for-7 against Mercer on Jan. 11.

Seemingly every time Virginia was possibly poised to make a large lead insurmountable, Foster delivered. When the Cavs led by 12 early in the second half, Foster hit a three. A couple of minutes later, he hit another to cut that lead in half. When Furman went on a 10-2 run to cut the Cavaliers' lead to four with 6:53 left, Foster had half of those on a three and a layup.

"My mindset as a shooter is every time I get a good, clean look, I let it go. My teammates honestly get pretty mad at me if I don't after a good look. Every time I had some space today, I could hear my coaches and teammates just saying, 'shoot it,' " Foster said. "I fired that thing up and was just fortunate enough to make four of them. I'm just thankful I was given the opportunity to get those looks."

Foster finished with 14 points, five rebounds and two blocked shots. Slawson led the Paladins with a game-high 19 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. Pegues and Bothwell each scored 11, and Pegues also had four assists. Hien had seven points and six rebounds, while Williams accounted for all the bench scoring with six points. Williams had the best plus-minus Thursday as Furman outscored Virginia by 13 during his 25 minutes on the court.

Shedrick led the Cavaliers with 15 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks.

PayPal donations to FSR

As always, thank you for reading and supporting the Furman Sports Report. This blog would not have been possible without the financial support of its initial sponsor, Tommy's Country Ham House. Without a sponsor following Tommy's retirement, I now rely on donations to help with the cost of travel to cover the football and basketball teams. If you'd like to make a donation, you can do so at the PayPal link here. Thanks again for your support and consideration!

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Hoo boy! Furman-Virginia to open NCAA tourney

Furman celebrates after its name is revealed during an NCAA Tournament
Selection Show watch party at Timmons Arena Sunday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Furman men's basketball program had to wait 43 years to hear its name called on the NCAA Tournament Selection Show. It didn't have to wait very long on Sunday though. The show began by revealing Alabama as the top overall seed for the tournament, followed by the rest of the matchups in the South Regional.

When Virginia's name popped up as the No. 4 seed in the South, there was a real sense of nervous anticipation about who might be next amongst the packed house watching on a big screen at Furman's Timmons Arena. When show host Greg Gumbel said "they (Virginia) will meet the Paladins of Furman University" and 13th-seed Furman appeared on the screen, the crowd of team members, coaches, cheerleaders, students and fans erupted.

"That was a lot of fun, just to see the arena full and to continue to see the excitement of our fan base. It's something that we've waited for a very long time to be part of. Everybody kept asking me through the week, 'does it feel real?' I think today made it real," Richey said in a press conference following the watch party. "We're going, and we know where we're going and we know who we're playing. I couldn't be more happy for our players, our former players and our fans to be able to experience it."

About an hour after the bracket was revealed, the Paladins found out they wouldn't have long to wait to get started in the tournament either. Furman and Virginia will be the second game of the opening round when the teams tip-off at 12:40 p.m. Thursday at the Amway Center in Orlando. The game will be televised on truTV.

After finally reaching the mountain top of the Southern Conference with its championship victory over Chattanooga on March 6, it was a week of celebrating and preparing for an unknown opponent capped off by Sunday's raucous event.

Then it became time preparing for a Virginia program that year in and year out has one of the toughest defenses in the country. The Cavaliers, who rank sixth in the country in scoring defense allowing 60.2 points per game, will be tested by a Furman offense that's eighth in the country in scoring (82.1 points per game) and assists (17.1 per game).

It will be a matchup of excellent coaches. Among the top 20 active Division I basketball coaches in winning percentage (minimum 100 games), this is the only opening round game featuring two. Virginia's Tony Bennett is 10th at 410-157 (.7231), while Richey is 11th at 138-53 (.7225).

"I've watched him for years. His values, the person that he is, being a man of faith and being an unbelievable basketball coach, I've looked up to him in a lot of ways" Richey said. "A lot of our defense we've pulled from a lot of the different things that they do."

Opponents change, but identity doesn't

Virginia (25-7) doesn't have a big-time standout scoring-wise. Armaan Franklin leads a balanced group averaging 12.5 points per game. Jayden Gardner averages 12.1 points and a team-high 5.8 rebounds per game. Kihei Clark averages 10.9 points and 5.4 assists per game, while Reece Beekman averages 9.4 points and 5.3 assists per game. The Cavaliers aka Wahoos aka 'Hoos have six players with at least 24 steals, led by Beekman's 55.

A fun matchup should come in the backcourt where Mike Bothwell, the fifth-leading scorer in Furman history who averages 18 points per game, and SoCon Tournament Most Outstanding Player J.P. Pegues face Beekman and Clark. ESPN analyst call Virginia's duo "the best defensive guards in the country." While Furman ranks 10th in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.53, Virginia is No. 1 at 1.85.

Richey called the NCAA Tournament the biggest spectacle in college athletics, if not athletics in general. Going into the biggest game of their lives, Richey said it's important to not lose sight of who they are.

"What makes Virginia good? They have identity. What makes Furman good? We have identity. We're not going to try to find any tricks this week. We have to go do what we do best. They're going to try to do what they do best," Richey said. "I watched the (ACC) championship (Saturday) night. It was an unbelievable battle between Duke and Virginia. It was a lot of defense out there. Duke won because they really, really guarded.

"What we're going to have to understand is we're going to have to go defend and rebound at the highest level that we have all year. If we do that, get stops and get rebounds, then we're going to get an opportunity to go out and do what we do."

When Richey cut down the net last Monday in Asheville, he held his piece up, turned to the crowd and shouted "believe!" That's the biggest thing for a team trying to be the latest version of Cinderella in the greatest ball of them all. After overcoming the heartbreak of last season's end and the pressure this season brought, "believe" still resonates within the Paladins.

"Every time we step on the court and every time we're connected, we believe that we can beat anybody," Pegues said. "I think we're going to take that same attitude to Orlando."

What Virginia is saying

In addition to being one of the best coaches in the country, Bennett is also one of the most respected and well liked. It's no surprise that he heaped praise on the Paladins during a press conference Monday.

"In watching them, there's a reason why they've been so good for so many years. That program has been established. They play the right way and they're a veteran team," Bennett said. "They can get it down the floor, shoot it well, but also run good stuff and play hard defensively. ... They'll challenge you in a lot of ways."

Bennett said in watching film it was easy to see why Furman's Jalen Slawson earned SoCon Player of the Year honors this season.

"He's a complete offensive player and very competitive. He's got size and length. He can shoot it well, put it on the floor and passes well," Bennett said. "They use him in unique ways in how they stretch the floor. He's almost like a point forward or a point guard-forward type."

So you're telling me there's a chance

Since the NCAA Tournament expanded in 1985, No. 13 seeds have gone 31-113 (21.5 winning percentage) in the first round. Furman won't have the luxury of sneaking up on an opponent who has never experienced the pain of an NCAA first-round upset loss as Virginia was one of the last No. 4 seeds to fall to a 13-seed. That came in 2021, when the Cavs lost to Ohio, 62-58. That same year, fourth-seeded Purdue also lost to 13th-seeded North Texas in overtime.

Virginia will actually be going for its first NCAA victory since capturing the 2019 national championship. The Cavaliers went 23-7 in the 2019-20 regular season, but COVID cancelled the ACC and NCAA tournaments that season. Last season, Virginia didn't make the field and went on to fall in the NIT quarterfinals.

The Cavs were famously on the wrong end of the biggest upset in NCAA history when they became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16-seed in the opening round at the 2018 Tournament. Virginia's response by winning the whole thing the following season actually helped inspire Furman, following its heartbreaking end to the 2022 season.

"We've talked a little bit about their journey and the ticket of adversity being able to get you somewhere that you couldn't have gone to without it," Richey said. "As we went on our journey this last year, we drew on that some."

Going to Disney World

Winning your conference tournament six days before Selection Sunday provides plenty of time for fans - and writers - to check bracketology and other tournament projections on a daily basis. For quite a bit of last week, it appeared that Furman might be a No. 14 seed facing Tennessee in Greensboro. That would've ironically been the same opponent in the same building as the Paladins' last tournament game in 1980.

While it would've been the shortest trip for the team and fans, it would've kind of stunk to go play in UNC Greensboro's arena that Furman already plays in every year. Everyone seemed thrilled to get a new experience of playing in the Amway Center, home of the NBA's Orlando Magic. That was even true for Bothwell, a Cleveland Heights, Ohio native, who could've been playing 150 miles from home had the Paladins been ticketed for Columbus.

"When we were talking about it, Orlando kept popping up as a place we really wanted a chance to go to. Going to play in an NBA arena where the Magic play is just another childhood dream fulfilled," Bothwell said. "I'm looking forward to walking around the city, the shootaround, all the pageantry that leads up to the game and then obviously, the game itself.

"We're just going to relish in every moment of stuff that's not guaranteed or promised. It's going to be super fun and I'm just glad I get to do it with all of us together. Our families will be there. Our coaches' families will be there. That's stuff that we will remember forever."

PayPal donations to FSR

As always, thank you for reading and supporting the Furman Sports Report. This blog would not have been possible without the financial support of its initial sponsor, Tommy's Country Ham House. Without a sponsor following Tommy's retirement, I now rely on donations to help with the cost of travel to cover the football and basketball teams. If you'd like to make a donation, you can do so at the PayPal link here. Thanks again for your support and consideration!

Saturday, March 11, 2023

A Star is Born: Pegues shines in crunch time

Furman's 6-foot-1 point guard J.P. Pegues lobs a shot over Chattanooga 7-foot standout Jake Stephens at
the Southern Conference Tournament championship Monday in Asheville, N.C. Photo courtesy of Furman

When asked about being left off this season's All-Southern Conference basketball teams, Furman's J.P. Pegues took the high road all weekend at the Southern Conference Tournament in Asheville, N.C. When asked about it by his coach after the teams were announced last week, he did the same - with one little addendum.

"We kind of smile about that stuff. ... After we saw the all-conference teams, I asked J.P., 'you doing okay?' He said, 'yeah, I'm just fine. I've been looked over my whole life. I'm used to it.' " Furman coach Bob Richey recalled during Monday's championship postgame press conference. "When he said that I thought, 'he's about to play some ball in Asheville,' and boy did he."

He did to the tune of being named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. Pegues is just the third player over the past 20 years to earn Tournament MOP after not making an all-SoCon team, joining ETSU's Isaiah Tisdale in 2020 and Chattanooga's Greg Pryor in 2016.

While the all-SoCon snub probably provided some subconscious motivation for Pegues, last weekend in Asheville was simply more of the natural progression that he's displayed all season. The sophomore offered hints to what kind of force he could be offensively last season.

Pegues made his Paladin debut in the 2021-22 season opener against North Greenville. He came off the bench to put up 10 points, five assists and four rebounds. Pegues reached double figures four other times as a freshman, including an 18-point performance after knocking down six three-pointers against Western Carolina. 

"I don't think he was on the (SoCon) All-Rookie team last year either. We keep a few receipts around here," Richey said with a grin. "We've had our share of disrespect, but our guys just keep pushing."

This season brought the challenge of a new position for Pegues. It wasn't 100 percent clear early on who would fill the shoes of the great Alex Hunter at point guard. In his first two games at the new position, Pegues had a combined total of two points and six turnovers against North Greenville and Belmont. But Richey kept Pegues in the lineup for every game this season as if he had a crystal ball for what was to come.

"Early on, he's got to go against Penn State, Old Dominion, South Carolina, Belmont. He had to go on the road to App State. As a coach, I had to stand by him and tell him how much I believe in him," Richey said. "I had to make sure that he knew, 'we're going to put the ball in your hands and let you go.' "

A sign of what was to come later this season came in the fourth game against Old Dominion in Charleston. While the Paladins' frantic comeback attempt from a 19-point deficit came up five points short, Pegues had 20 points, five assists and one turnover.

Still, the consistent scoring production didn't come for awhile. In the first 18 games this season, Pegues scored in double figures just five times. But as SoCon play began, Pegues' defense really became a huge part of Furman's success. Over Furman's first five SoCon games, opposing team's leading scorers combined for 28 points on 7-of-42 shooting. The primary defender on those players was Pegues.

That defensive effort eventually translated into more offense for Pegues. In the last 16 games, he reached double figures 15 times. The only one in that stretch where he didn't get to 10 points, Furman didn't need any more scoring. He had seven points, nine rebounds and seven assists in the Paladins' 93-59 win over Western Carolina on Feb. 11.

Furman coach Bob Richey, left, and J.P. Pegues celebrate the Paladins' SoCon Tournament championship
win Monday. Pegues was the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. Photo courtesy of Furman

SoCon Player of the Year Jalen Slawson told everyone about his point guard after Furman's thrilling overtime home win against Samford. In a matchup against Bulldogs' stud Ques Glover, Pegues had 15 points, seven assists, four rebounds and one turnover.

"I'll go on record and say that before this dude (Pegues) is out of here, he will be player of the year in this league," Slawson said in that postgame press conference on Jan. 25. "He's a tough matchup on both sides of the ball. ... There's not a point guard in the SoCon I'm taking over him.

"He's really good and he's just now scratching the surface of how good he's going to be."

Even Slawson might not have imagined how prophetic his words turned out to be just one month later. While Mike Bothwell scored Furman's first 18 points of the rematch at Samford on Feb. 25, Pegues took over when a third foul sent Bothwell to the bench for the final eight minutes of the first half. Pegues finished with 20 points to help the Paladins win, clinching the SoCon regular season championship and top seed for the tournament.

As great as he closed out the regular season, Pegues took his game to another level in Asheville. In Furman's three wins, Pegues had a combined 63 points, 15 rebounds, 10 assists and just one turnover. Pegues has at least 17 points in each of his last five games. In the Paladins' first 29 games this season, Pegues had at least 17 points just four times.

That one turnover in Asheville came midway through the first half of Saturday's quarterfinal win over Mercer. Ball security, much like it was for Hunter before him, has been a big part of Pegues' success in league play. He led the SoCon in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.7). After 32 turnovers in 13 non-conference games, Pegues has just 29 in the 21 games since conference play began.

"It's been a journey for me. It's just something that I've molded into. I've had a routine and a process that I follow," Pegues said in Monday's postgame press conference. "My coaches, my family and my teammates always believed in me from day one. Even on my worst days, there wasn't any question about who I could be. That's because they've seen different sparks on who I can be on the court as a point guard and as a leader.

"For it to all come together today, I'm really happy about that."

It wasn't just the stats that earned most outstanding player of the tournament for Pegues. It was the situations. Against Mercer, Pegues opened the second-half scoring with a five-second sprint from one end of the court to the other for a layup while drawing a foul. He completed the three-point play, which  allowed the Paladins to set up the full court press. Furman's defense off that press the rest of the way helped it rally to win after trailing at the half for the first time this season.

In the semifinal win over Western Carolina, Pegues drew a late foul on a three and hit the game-winning free throws late in overtime. Just a few minutes later, Pegues was late to the postgame press conference because he could barely walk due to cramps. Richey revealed that night that Pegues had been unable to practice for the last two weeks due to injuries. He received fluids for two hours that night.

In Monday's championship, Chattanooga had whittled a 19-point Furman lead down to three late in the half after a four-point play by Jake Stephens. As the final seconds of the half ticked away, Pegues took it straight to the hole against Stephens. He twisted and turned before lobbing a successful one-handed shot over the seven-footer as the clock expired to push some momentum back to the Paladins going into halftime.

"He's the first point guard I've had who called his own play tonight. Right before halftime, he didn't even look at me," Richey said with a laugh. "He just called it up. And he scored, so I'm gonna let him call a lot of plays the next two years."


Thank you so much for reading the Furman Sports Report. I don't ever plan to charge for any of the work I do here, but donations are always gratefully accepted. You can donate through PayPal at this link. Thanks again for your support!

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Mission accomplished: Paladins win SoCon title

Furman players celebrate their 88-79 win over Chattanooga in the Southern Conference
Tournament championship game Monday. (Paul Lollis/Southern Conference)

ASHEVILLE, N.C. - It's over.

The massive level of gloom imposed by 25 losing seasons from 1981-2015.

The disappointing end to shocking runs to the Southern Conference championship game in 2002 and 2015.

The sting of going one-and-done as upset victims at the SoCon Tournament in 2017, 2020 and 2021.

The heartbreak to top all heartbreaks at the 2022 SoCon championship game.

The gut punch at The Citadel three weeks ago that had some aftershocks for a couple of games before a glorious SoCon regular season championship win at Samford.

The knots in your stomach that developed in the first half Saturday against Mercer, came back in the second half Sunday against Western Carolina, and never really went away until about 9:10 p.m. Monday.

The pressure of being the SoCon favorites this season, avenging last year's heartbreak, and wanting to win so badly for two historic graduate seniors who could've moved on to play for any team in the country, but chose to come back.

After 43 years of hopelessness and heartbreak, it's over.

A Furman basketball team that Coach Bob Richey has implored to find joy in everything they do this season, found a whole new level of joy Monday night. The Paladins defeated Chattanooga 88-79 in the SoCon Tournament championship to earn the league's autobid to the NCAA Tournament. Monday's win came 43 years to the day of Furman's last NCAA appearance, when it fell to Tennessee in Jonathan "Stitch" Moore's final game as a Paladin on March 6, 1980.

In their final game against SoCon competition, Jalen Slawson and Mike Bothwell did what they've done so brilliantly in their Paladin careers. Slawson had 20 points, five rebounds, four assists, one steal and one block, while Bothwell scored all 16 of his points in the second half. Meanwhile, Furman's version of "A Star is Born" continued to receive rave reviews in Asheville. J.P. Pegues, who could barely walk after playing more than 41 minutes in Sunday's overtime win, had 17 points, six rebounds, four assists and no turnovers Monday on his way to earning SoCon Tournament MVP honors. 

"There's a lot you can say about tonight. There's a lot you can say about the last year of our lives. But it's just unbelievable to see the joy in our players. I told my staff this morning that I wanted to see this so bad for Mike and Slaw. And this guy to my left (Pegues), two hours of getting fluids last night and just played like an absolute warrior tonight," Richey said in the postgame press conference. "I sat up here a year ago and told y'all that we would be back. ... Glory to God for allowing me to be the leader of all this, but this is just an unbelievable group of people. This isn't a person. This isn't a player. It's a program.

"All (Chattanooga's winning shot last year) did was motivate us to come together and it's an unbelievable story right now because sports are so transitional. ... We're always looking for the next thing and if there's pain, we flee. If it's not how we want it, we run. But we're missing out on a life lesson ... like being a part of something that's bigger than yourself. You can ask these guys (Bothwell and Slawson) what they got to stay here. It wasn't anything. They wanted to be here. They wanted to have an opportunity to come out here and learn through this. These two over here could have gone anywhere, but they would've missed out. ... That connection is what our program is built on and tonight was just an opportunity for us to go display that."

Slawson said it wasn't only the players that learned and got better through the pain of how last season ended. He credited the work ethic of the coaching staff, spearheaded by its leader.

"He (Richey) always brags on us about how much better we're getting and you guys get to see our growth, but you don't really get to see how much he's grown," Slawson said with a cut-down net around his neck and the championship trophy in his arms. "He's worked his tail off since the (Chattanooga) shot went in last year. We knew he had a different energy about him in that first practice we had last summer. He told us, 'I'm not relenting on y'all, but y'all are going to thank me when we get to Asheville' and by God, I thank him right now."

After opening this year's tournament by winning for the first time this season when trailing at halftime and then having to rally after a 20-point lead evaporated the next day, Furman (27-7) saved its best performance of the weekend for last. Chattanooga (18-17) led for all of 47 seconds Monday. After sophomore Alex Williams scored his first points of the tournament on a three-pointer with 16:11 left in the first half, the Paladins had a lead they never relinquished.

Williams' three ignited an 18-0 run by Furman over the next 4:54. A Mocs' team that had shot over 50 percent in each of its three tournament wins to reach Monday's final missed nine consecutive shots before Dalvin White's jumper in the paint cut the lead to 23-9 with 9:35 left in the half. Unlike what happened against Mercer in Furman's quarterfinal win, Chattanooga didn't get any offensive rebounds of those nine misses. For the game, the Mocs only had five offensive boards and six points off those.

A layup by Williams gave Furman its biggest lead of the night at 30-11 with 7:26 left. Outside of freshman Ben VanderWal's 11-point showing against Mercer, the Paladins' bench had only five other points over the first two tournament games. But on Monday, reserves accounted for half of those first 30 points as Williams had 10, sophomore transfer Carter Whitt hit a three and VanderWal had two.

"We came into the year with high expectation and none higher than our own. But we knew we had some guys that had to grow up. ... It's about the collective (team) and I just think that's what grew this year," Richey said. "We've had some tough losses up here. ... I tell you what, I wouldn't change a thing about it because you can see progression every single year. I couldn't be more proud of these guys sitting by me and everybody in that locker room."

After blowing that 20-point lead against Western Carolina, perhaps 19 was a luckier number for Furman Monday. Chattanooga went on a similar run, but never pulled even. It wasn't like that run wasn't expected. Much like Bothwell and Slawson, the Mocs' center Jake Stephens was also a fifth-year graduate who could've gone anywhere after last season. Stephens chose to follow his coach Dan Earl from VMI to Chattanooga to try for that SoCon title and NCAA bid one more time.

Stephens, who broke his hand against Furman on Jan. 18 and missed the remainder of the regular season, made a dramatic return to the lineup with a heavily taped up hand in Asheville. He played like a guy who was named SoCon Player of the Week six times this season all weekend. His three-pointer with 2:37 left in the first half Monday capped an 18-2 run that cut Furman's lead to 32-29.

Pegues answered Stephens' three with a layup. With 51 seconds left in the half, Stephens turned in a four-point play to again cut the lead down to three. If any one play sealed Pegues' MVP, it might've been yet another answer. Pegues took it to the hole against Stephens, spun around and away from him and flipped up a one-handed shot over the 7-footer as his body hit the ground. The shot splashed through the net as the horn sounded and Furman took a 38-33 lead into halftime.

"I've learned - and the results have been better - when I've played harder for others. Knowing it's these two guys' (Bothwell and Slawson) last year and seeing them give everything they have inspired me and inspired the team," Pegues said. "At the end of the day, we just wanted to do good for them because we knew they came back with the same goal as us. We just came in and worked day in and day out together. They led us through the whole journey and I'm super proud of them."

Bothwell and fellow starter Garrett Hien were scoreless in the first half, but that changed quickly in the second. After Chattanooga got as close as it ever did at 39-38, Hien answered with a three-pointer. After the Mocs' next score, Hien answered with a steal and a dunk off an assist from Pegues. Bothwell got in the scoring column with a three-point play on Furman's next possession.

The Paladins pushed the lead to 10 three times over the next 10 minutes and led 69-57 on Pegues' layup with 7:25 left. Chattanooga kept hanging around though. A blocked shot by Stephens led to a layup by Chattanooga sixth-year senior A.J. Caldwell, who played the game of his life, slicing Furman's lead to 69-65 with 5:02 left.

Slawson answered on the Paladins' next possession when he drew a foul and hit both free throws. That was essentially the difference between Sunday and Monday. On Sunday, Furman missed 16 of 46 free throws, which allowed the Catamounts to come all the way back. On Monday, the Paladins made 24-of-30 free throws (80 percent) including 20-of-23 in the second half.

Marcus Foster, who scored only one point Sunday, drilled a three-pointer in the left corner with 2:51 left Monday to push the lead back to 10. That shot probably took the nervous level of the Furman fan section down from a 10 to about an 8. With just under two minutes to go Pegues found Slawson for a dunk and after a pair of misses on the other end, Foster provided the dagger. This time in the right corner, his three pushed the lead to 81-69 with 1:19 left and those Furman fans could finally breathe amongst all their hollering.

"When Marcus Foster hit those two threes, oh my goodness," Bothwell said. "That's what it's all about - a team victory. ... It was a perfect Furman game."

Bothwell, who made 12-of-13 free throws and drew nine fouls, scored Furman's final seven points to wrap things up. The Paladins' final field goal of the game could not have been more perfect. With Chattanooga in a full-court press trying for a steal, Slawson received a pass at midcourt and immediately fired a pass across the court to Bothwell streaking to the basket for a dunk.

That was it. The drought was over.

"We lose two of the first six in the league and people want to count us out. We noticed, but internally they kept believing. They won 14 of their last 15 and won the regular season (championship) on the road. They wanted to come up here and eliminate all doubt and they did," Richey said. "I just want to reiterate how much I love them, every single person in our program. This is a program night. This is a Furman University night. I wasn't born in 1980, but I don't have to hear that mess again and I thank God for that."

In addition to the big three's output, Williams finished with 12 points, six rebounds and no turnovers for Furman. Foster had eight points and a team-high nine rebounds.

Stephens had a game-high 25 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and drew 10 fouls to lead Chattanooga, which shot 45.8 percent from the floor. Jamal Johnson added 17 points, while Caldwell finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.

Furman will have to wait until Sunday to find who it will face and where it will play next, but after 43 years what's a few more days? The Paladins will hold an NCAA Selection Show watch party at Timmons Arena that's free for fans to attend. Doors open at 5 p.m. and the show begins at 6 p.m.

Monday, March 6, 2023

Paladins find a way to reach SoCon title game

Mike Bothwell had 26 points to lead Furman to an 83-80 overtime win over Western
Carolina in the SoCon Tournament semifinals Sunday. Photo courtesy of Furman

ASHEVILLE, N.C. - Survive and advance indeed.

Furman took an 18-point lead over Western Carolina with less than 14 minutes to play in its semifinal matchup at the Southern Conference Tournament Sunday. Twelve minutes later, that lead was gone. Just when it looked like the Paladins' NCAA hopes were choked away, Mike Bothwell and J.P. Pegues teamed up for a Heimlich maneuver.

On a day when Furman missed entirely too many free throws, Bothwell hit two to force overtime, Pegues hit two to give the Paladins the lead, and Bothwell hit two to seal an 83-80 win. After breaking the school record for wins in a season, Furman (26-7) advances to play in Monday's championship game at 7 p.m. on ESPN. The Paladins will play seventh-seeded Chattanooga (18-16), who advanced with a 74-62 over sixth-seeded Wofford.

"Wow, what a college basketball game. A lot of credit to Western Carolina. ... To be down 19 in the second half and fight back, you have to tip your hat to them. It was an unbelievable game that you hate to see somebody lose, but this team is callused. They know hard and they know tough. They've been through it," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "Tonight, when it felt like things were slipping away a little bit, they made all the critical plays they had to. The storyline is going to be that we couldn't make a free throw and there's some truth to that. But when the free throws had to be made, they made them.

"Twenty-six wins in a season has never been done in Furman history. They got to do that tonight and they get to go play for a championship tomorrow night. We said last year that we'd be back. Because of their will and their guts late down the stretch, we've got that opportunity tomorrow night. We can't wait to be a part of it."

In the regular season, the Paladins blew nine-point leads in each half in its 12-point loss at Western on New Year's Even then blew out the Catamounts in Greenville on Feb. 11. On Sunday, both of those games seemingly combined into one.

Furman went on a 20-8 run over a five-minute stretch late in the first half to take a 15-point lead into halftime. That lead grew to 20 in the second half and was 58-40 on Pegues' layup with 13:51 left. But it could've been more. At that point, the Paladins were 14-of-24 from the foul line. Even with a sizeable lead, it had to creep into some thoughts that all those missed free throws could come back to haunt them.

It's not like the Paladins were shooting any better from anywhere else after halftime. Furman made just 7-of-24 field goals in the second half and were 0-for-11 on three-pointers.

Much like Furman's last trip to North Carolina to face the Catamounts, Western (18-15) made plenty of layups and dunks to shrink the advantage. It did so while the Paladins seemingly made 1-of-2 free throws over and over on the other end. The Catamounts used that 2-for-1 trade to come all the way back.

Furman was still up by five before Western's All-SoCon do-it-all man Vonterius Woolbright made a jumper and drew Jalen Slawson's fifth foul with 2:02 left in regulation. Slawson had picked up his fourth foul with 4:37 left on an incredibly delicate charge call. Woolbright made the free throw to cut the lead to 70-68.

With the SoCon Player of the Year on the bench on Furman's next possession, the Paladins looked lost. As the shot clock ticked down, Pegues threw up a wild shot off the backboard and he hit the floor. With Pegues on the ground, the Catamounts had a 5-on-4 advantage and All-SoCon guard Tre Jackson easily drove to the hole for a layup to tie the game with 1:25 left.

"We were a little bit discombobulated offensively. Part of it was not being able to get play calls in because they couldn't hear me. ... We will have to tighten that up," Richey said. "I knew there was going to be a lot of people in here today and when they started going on their run, you could tell there were a ton.

"It got really, really loud and they were playing with a lot of momentum. I'm just proud of our guys when they had to stand up. ... It was similar to the Samford game at home, where we just had to find a way."

After a timeout, Furman still looked lost on offense and committed a shot clock violation. In this crazy game, that was the Paladins' third and final turnover of the game. The other two came on weak charge calls. Furman's care of the ball didn't matter much when Woolbright scored to give Western a 72-70 lead with 38 seconds left. 

When they needed it most, the Paladins finally had someone rise up as Bothwell drove to the basket and drew a foul with 26 seconds left. Bothwell, an 84.2 percent foul shooter who had missed five free throws at that point, calmly sank both free throws to tie the game 72-72. With Marcus Foster smothering Woolbright denying him the ball, Furman held its breath as Western's Russell Jones missed everything on a jumper as time expired to send the game to overtime.

Jackson opened overtime by nailing a three for Western. With 1:49 left, Bothwell hit Furman's lone three after halftime and lone field goal in overtime to tie the game at 77. Western answered 19 seconds later on a dunk by All-SoCon big man Tyzhaun Claude.

On Furman's ensuing possession, Bothwell drew Claude's fifth foul on a three. He made 2-of-3 free throws to tie it up again. The Paladins trailed by one with 28 seconds left when Pegues was fouled on a three. He made 2-of-3 to give Furman an 81-80 lead.

"Over the course of the game, I got hot and they started bringing a big man out. ... I knew (Bernard) Pelote was close to me, so I threw a pump fake and he jumped in the air," Pegues said. "As soon as he jumped, I knew I had a foul if I sold it."

Jackson's jumper on the other end missed. Foster grabbed the rebound and got it to Bothwell, who was fouled. Just as he did in the final seconds of regulation, Bothwell sank both to push the lead to 83-80 with eight seconds left. With Bothwell on Jackson's left, Foster on his right and Garrett Hien nearby, Western's sharp-shooter launched a three that hit off the backboard and bounced off the rim as time expired.

After the game, Pegues had trouble walking to the press conference and then had trouble getting out of his seat to leave. What Richey revealed makes Pegues' play this weekend and down the stretch of the regular season all the more inspiring.

"J.P. hasn't practiced in about two weeks. Justin Games, our trainer, (who's helped Pegues get ready to play) is one of the best in the country. J.P.'s dealing with some things that he just continues to fight through," Richey said. "He's competitive as they come. He's averaged 21 (points per game) over the last four and he's just gotten better (playing) all year."

Bothwell finished with 26 points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals to lead Furman. Pegues had 24 points, five rebounds, two assists and a steal. Slawson put up 15 points, nine rebounds and two blocks, while Hien finished with 12 points, four rebounds and a block. Furman went 7-of-31 from three and 30-of-46 from the foul line.

Bothwell made 10-of-16 free throws, but connected on seven of his final eight over the last two-and-a-half minutes of regulation and overtime. He said the overtime period gave him a bit of chance to reset things that had gone wrong in the second half, especially at the foul line.

"I still didn't make every one of them after that, but there's a lot going on in your head in these games. ... You've just got to try to eliminate all those things, remember your technique and act like you're just shooting in practice," Bothwell said. "I think we learned from times earlier this year when we freaked out when things weren't going our way. ... You've just got to find a way to win, no matter what. Thankfully, today we did."

Woolbright tied a career-high with 30 points, and also had 11 rebounds and five assists to lead the Catamounts. Jackson scored 22, while Claude had 15 points and 11 rebounds also for Western.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Pegues, pressure propel Paladins past Mercer

J.P. Pegues had 22 points to lead Furman to a 73-58 win over Mercer at the Southern
Conference Tournament Saturday in Asheville, N.C. Photo courtesy of Furman

ASHEVILLE, N.C. - As the No. 1 seed in the Southern Conference Tournament for the first time since 1991, Furman found itself in an unfamiliar position playing the noon game of the quarterfinals at Harrah's Cherokee Center. After the opening 20 minutes Saturday, the Paladins were in another unfamiliar position as it trailed a SoCon opponent at the half for only the second time this season.

Furman coach Bob Richey knew something had to change in the second half and did it ever. The Paladins went to a rare full-court press and turned over - literally - eighth-seeded Mercer's upset bid. Furman forced 13 turnovers in the second half and All-SoCon snub J.P. Pegues scored a game-high 22 points as the Paladins won, 73-58.

Furman (25-7) advances to face fourth-seeded Western Carolina in Sunday's first semifinal at 4 p.m. The Catamounts (18-14) advanced with a 69-57 win over fifth-seeded ETSU Saturday.

With their 18th consecutive victory against Mercer, the Paladins tied the school record for wins in a season set in 2018-19 and 2019-20. Furman had been 0-5 when trailing at the half this season prior to Saturday.

"I thought (Mercer coach) Greg (Gary) really had his team ready to play and they had a great plan. They really tried to slow the tempo of the game down. ... We weren't moving the ball well. I think we only had three assists in the first half. They only had three turnovers and it was just clear to me that we had to change the tempo," Richey said. "We went to pressure, and man, our guys started flying around and kind of energized us. We built off that energy. I felt the ball start popping while we started attacking better. You could just see it.

"We say it all the time - when we're leading at the half, 'there's nothing more irrelevant than a halftime score.' Today, we kind of flipped that but it's the same thing. We had to go out there and understand that this thing can change, but we're going to have to do some things differently."

There were three keys to Furman trailing at the half Saturday. The Paladins missed half of their free throws (4-of-8), forced only three turnovers - two of which were shot clock violations, and allowed Mercer to grab 10 offensive rebounds in an opening half in which the Bears only shot 38.7 percent (12-of-31).

After Mercer pushed its lead to 34-29 a minute-and-a-half into the second half, Pegues had one of those "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take this anymore!" type of plays. Pegues took an inbounds pass under Mercer's basket and dribbled all the way to Furman's basket for a layup and drew the foul. Total time on that play was five seconds.

"I knew in the second half we had to come out and be aggressive," Pegues said. "On that play, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to go by this guy.’ I ended up seeing the lane and making the right play."

Pegues hit the free throw to cut the lead to two. More importantly, it allowed Furman to set up the press for the first time. Mercer's ball-handler was stuck underneath Furman's basket with 23 on the shot clock when the Bears called timeout. That 12-second span of Pegues' shot and the Paladins' defense set the tone for the rest of the game.

Coming out of the timeout, Mercer got the ball past midcourt but shortly thereafter, Jalen Slawson knocked it away. Slawson picked it up around midcourt and took it the rest of the way for a dunk. Furman never trailed again.

Another layup by Pegues with 16:45 left put the Paladins ahead for good. Pegues and Bothwell each hit threes to push the lead to 44-36 with 14:52 and Mercer called timeout as the Furman crowd was in a frenzy.

"We pressed a little bit earlier in the year and it got us back in some games. ... We had time to tighten up a few bolts if we were going to have a curveball and we spent time on the press the other day in practice," Richey said. "It was enough to allow us to got to it if needed. Then the crowd got into it and the whole energy changed."

Another Pegues' three two minutes later pushed the lead to 13 and forced another Mercer timeout. The timeouts did nothing to stem the tide. Coming out of the timeout, Mercer's next two possessions ended on a 10-second violation and a Slawson steal.

A pair of Ben VanderWal free throws with 8:01 left made it a 25-4 run over a stretch of 8:44 as Furman took an insurmountable 61-40 lead. That lead stretched to as large as 22 the rest of the way.

"At halftime, I just told the team that they were being tougher than us. They were setting the rules of engagement for the game and that's never good. ... We were doing a lot of uncharacteristic things that kind of showed we weren't mentally tough," Bothwell said. "We came out in the second half with the thought that the season's on the line and we've got to be tough. The press kind of gave us that edge. We started forcing turnovers, flying around and the toughness grew from that."

Along with his game-high 22 points, Pegues had four rebounds, a game-high four assists and one turnover. Bothwell had 13 points, while Slawson had 12 points, four rebounds, three steals and one magnificent block midway through the second half after yet another Mercer offensive rebound. That led to a Slawson layup on the other end.

VanderWal accounted for all 11 of Furman's bench points and he and fellow reserve Alex Williams led the team with six rebounds apiece. Marcus Foster finished with nine points and two steals also for the Paladins. Furman had 19 points off those 13 turnovers by the Bears in the second half.

After those 10 offensive rebounds in the first half, Mercer had six more in the second half but only scored four points off those. The Bears made 9-of-26 field goals (34.6 percent) in the second half and none of those came against Furman's full-court press. Five of those nine came in the final 4:14 when Furman had things well in hand.

"I had two all-conference guards here on my left. That helps. ... They were just warriors. ... I hope I didn't offend anybody there. I was going by my all-conference ballot. I'm sorry about that," Richey said with a smile. "This was the third team in four games that really tried to change the tempo of the game on us. In one of those, I really regretted not doing something to change the tempo.

"We said all year, we lost well as a team. ... You learn from it. ... We had to go out and change the tempo because we're best when we're fast. The defense allowed us to do that today."

Jalyn McCreary was the lone double-figure scorer for Mercer (14-19) with 18 points.

Friday, March 3, 2023

After SoCon's top honor, Slawson eyes league title

Furman's Jalen Slawson is the consensus Southern Conference
Player of the Year. Photo courtesy of Furman

When Furman's Jalen Slawson found out he was named the top player in the Southern Conference during a team meeting on Wednesday, he experienced a range of emotions. Slawson was the consensus Player of the Year in the league, finishing atop the voting by the SoCon's coaches and media.

Slawson was obviously happy that the work he's put in this season and in his career was recognized. But there was also a bittersweet feeling that he had for fellow fifth-year senior, Mike Bothwell, who he shares the school record for career wins with at 112. There's no doubt that Bothwell got plenty of Player of the Year votes as well, as he and Slawson each made both All-SoCon first teams.

"The whole team celebrated it, but I kind of had a hole in my gut. ... I wanted to be excited for myself, but I knew Mike was just as deserving of the award as I was," Slawson said. "I knew Mike was happy for me, but I thought about for a long time. I finally just shot him a text saying, 'as far as I'm concerned, this is our award. In my eyes, we will always be co-players of the year.'

"He told me he was excited for me and said, 'let's go win this thing.' "

Slawson's ultimate feeling was that earning the SoCon's top individual honor is a wonderful perk of a longer-term mission that culminates this weekend. Slawson and Bothwell will try to end Furman's 43-year NCAA Tournament drought when the top-seeded Paladins compete at the SoCon Tournament in Asheville.

"I definitely wouldn't be here without our staff and my teammates. ... It feels good and a lot of hard work was put into it, but awards aren't the ultimate goal in all this," Slawson said. "I didn't come into this season expecting to or trying to be SoCon Player of the Year. I came into it trying to win a championship and take the program back to the NCAA Tournament."

It's the second consecutive season that Slawson and Bothwell earned first team All-SoCon honors. Slawson, who also collected the SoCon Defensive Player of the Year award last year, once again filled up multiple stat columns this season.

The Summerville native averaged 15.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocked shots per game. In SoCon play, Slawson was even better. He averaged 16.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game in league games to help Furman (24-7, 15-3) earn a share of the SoCon regular season title for the first time since 2017 and its first No. 1 seed for the conference tourney since 1991.

"I think he'd be the first to tell you that he grew the most this year out of any of the years he's been here. That's what has been neat about coaching him. He never carried an entitlement like 'hey, I decided to come back. I need to be able to do whatever I want,' " Furman coach Bob Richey said after Wednesday's honors were announced. "He had to go through a position change for our best and also for his long term development, moving him from the five to the four. He did that with the understanding that he's still going to have to be willing to play the five with the time calls. He never made it about him.

"I probably coached them harder this year than any year. There were some things that as a leader - that responsibility and weight - he had to accept and carry it. Since early January, you can see his composure is the best it's been. You can see the flip and see him channeling that energy in the right direction."

Even though Furman lost to UNC Greensboro, 86-80 in overtime Jan. 13, that seemed to be where Slawson really took his game to another level this season. He had 22 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots that day. The Paladins followed that loss by winning eight consecutive games and Slawson was named SoCon Player of the Month for January.

On Jan. 26, Slawson had 26 points and 11 rebounds in Furman's critical overtime win over Samford. In what was likely Slawson's final game at Timmons Arena on Feb. 22, he had 27 points and seven rebounds in a 70-67 win over Mercer.

"Honestly, I just started shooting the ball more (in January) and as a whole, our focus changed a little bit," Slawson said. "We started paying a lot more attention to our defense. As a team, we bought into the fact that defense was what was going to lead us to a championship. I'm at my best when I play in transition, so I have a give me teammates a lot of credit for that."

Slawson put up slightly better scoring numbers than last season (14.4 points per game), and did so with a much better shooting percentage. After making 48.4 percent of his shots last season, he's shooting 55.4 percent this year. Slawson hit 30.6 perfect of his three-pointers last year, but is shooting 38.2 percent from beyond the arc this season.

Slawson is the first Paladin to win SoCon Player of the Year since Devin Sibley in 2017 and the third in the last eight seasons. Stephen Croone won it in 2016. From 1981-2015, Furman only had one winner - Chuck Vincent in 1998.

It's the third time that Bothwell has earned All-SoCon accolades. He led the SoCon averaging 17.9 points per game, to go along with 3.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game. Bothwell added to his legendary career of clutch shots when he hit the game-winner in the final seconds of a 72-70 win over Stephen F. Austin. That capped a career-high 36-point scoring effort.

In SoCon play, Bothwell saved his best for last. He scored Furman's first 18 points of last Saturday's win at Samford. He finished with 35 points in the 93-79 win that gave the Paladins a split of the SoCon regular season title and top seed for the tournament. Bothwell, who's shooting 52.9 percent from the floor and 84.5 percent from the foul line this season, is currently in sixth place on Furman's all-time scoring chart with 1.935 points - one shy of Croone.

"Mike's not afraid of the big lights. We've always known that and that's a great quality to have. You think about Saturday (at Samford). You think about Chattanooga in the (tournament) championship last year. You think about last year at Wofford when when we wanted to try to start to turn the tide on that rivalry and we did, he came out there guns blazing," Richey said. "With everything that was on the line Saturday, he will look back at that game forever. ... I got home Saturday night and had a two-word text from him: 'thank you.'

"Just to see that, it was like him saying, 'totally the right decision (to come back this season). ... I'm so appreciative for what you guys have done for me.' That's what you want. You want to have a program of appreciation. I just want it so bad for this to work out for him and for both of them to be like, 'this was all worth it.' "

Also earning postseason honors was Ben VanderWal, who made the All-Freshman team. VanderWal averaged 4.9 points and 3.2 rebounds and was a big part of a bench that has proven to be vitally important in league play. He scored a career-high 14 points in Furman's win over The Citadel in January and had his first double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds in the Paladins' win at Wofford.

Unfortunately, sophomore J.P. Pegues was not recognized despite his transformation into an elite point guard in his first year at the position. With his ability to shut down many opposing teams' leading scoring guards, his speed and a knack for making crucial plays on offense, Pegues has been as big a part of Furman's success as anyone. For the record, he was third member of the second team on my All-SoCon ballot.

Furman will open Saturday's quarterfinal round of the SoCon Tournament against eighth-seeded Mercer at noon at Harrah's Cherokee Center. Mercer advanced with a 66-41 over ninth-seeded Citadel Friday evening. The Paladins will try to extend their 17-game winning streak in the series and take the first step of winning a championship after last year's heartbreaking title game loss.

"They're (Mercer) going to have our attention. They just played us really closely. We've got to be ready to roll," Richey said after last Saturday's win at Samford. "There's one mission. We've got to go play with joy and with an unbelievable connection.

"This group is going to be ready. We've been looking forward to this for 51 weeks."