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.

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