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."


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