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."

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