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.

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