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."

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