Saturday, March 4, 2023

Pegues, pressure propel Paladins past Mercer

J.P. Pegues had 22 points to lead Furman to a 73-58 win over Mercer at the Southern
Conference Tournament Saturday in Asheville, N.C. Photo courtesy of Furman

ASHEVILLE, N.C. - As the No. 1 seed in the Southern Conference Tournament for the first time since 1991, Furman found itself in an unfamiliar position playing the noon game of the quarterfinals at Harrah's Cherokee Center. After the opening 20 minutes Saturday, the Paladins were in another unfamiliar position as it trailed a SoCon opponent at the half for only the second time this season.

Furman coach Bob Richey knew something had to change in the second half and did it ever. The Paladins went to a rare full-court press and turned over - literally - eighth-seeded Mercer's upset bid. Furman forced 13 turnovers in the second half and All-SoCon snub J.P. Pegues scored a game-high 22 points as the Paladins won, 73-58.

Furman (25-7) advances to face fourth-seeded Western Carolina in Sunday's first semifinal at 4 p.m. The Catamounts (18-14) advanced with a 69-57 win over fifth-seeded ETSU Saturday.

With their 18th consecutive victory against Mercer, the Paladins tied the school record for wins in a season set in 2018-19 and 2019-20. Furman had been 0-5 when trailing at the half this season prior to Saturday.

"I thought (Mercer coach) Greg (Gary) really had his team ready to play and they had a great plan. They really tried to slow the tempo of the game down. ... We weren't moving the ball well. I think we only had three assists in the first half. They only had three turnovers and it was just clear to me that we had to change the tempo," Richey said. "We went to pressure, and man, our guys started flying around and kind of energized us. We built off that energy. I felt the ball start popping while we started attacking better. You could just see it.

"We say it all the time - when we're leading at the half, 'there's nothing more irrelevant than a halftime score.' Today, we kind of flipped that but it's the same thing. We had to go out there and understand that this thing can change, but we're going to have to do some things differently."

There were three keys to Furman trailing at the half Saturday. The Paladins missed half of their free throws (4-of-8), forced only three turnovers - two of which were shot clock violations, and allowed Mercer to grab 10 offensive rebounds in an opening half in which the Bears only shot 38.7 percent (12-of-31).

After Mercer pushed its lead to 34-29 a minute-and-a-half into the second half, Pegues had one of those "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take this anymore!" type of plays. Pegues took an inbounds pass under Mercer's basket and dribbled all the way to Furman's basket for a layup and drew the foul. Total time on that play was five seconds.

"I knew in the second half we had to come out and be aggressive," Pegues said. "On that play, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to go by this guy.’ I ended up seeing the lane and making the right play."

Pegues hit the free throw to cut the lead to two. More importantly, it allowed Furman to set up the press for the first time. Mercer's ball-handler was stuck underneath Furman's basket with 23 on the shot clock when the Bears called timeout. That 12-second span of Pegues' shot and the Paladins' defense set the tone for the rest of the game.

Coming out of the timeout, Mercer got the ball past midcourt but shortly thereafter, Jalen Slawson knocked it away. Slawson picked it up around midcourt and took it the rest of the way for a dunk. Furman never trailed again.

Another layup by Pegues with 16:45 left put the Paladins ahead for good. Pegues and Bothwell each hit threes to push the lead to 44-36 with 14:52 and Mercer called timeout as the Furman crowd was in a frenzy.

"We pressed a little bit earlier in the year and it got us back in some games. ... We had time to tighten up a few bolts if we were going to have a curveball and we spent time on the press the other day in practice," Richey said. "It was enough to allow us to got to it if needed. Then the crowd got into it and the whole energy changed."

Another Pegues' three two minutes later pushed the lead to 13 and forced another Mercer timeout. The timeouts did nothing to stem the tide. Coming out of the timeout, Mercer's next two possessions ended on a 10-second violation and a Slawson steal.

A pair of Ben VanderWal free throws with 8:01 left made it a 25-4 run over a stretch of 8:44 as Furman took an insurmountable 61-40 lead. That lead stretched to as large as 22 the rest of the way.

"At halftime, I just told the team that they were being tougher than us. They were setting the rules of engagement for the game and that's never good. ... We were doing a lot of uncharacteristic things that kind of showed we weren't mentally tough," Bothwell said. "We came out in the second half with the thought that the season's on the line and we've got to be tough. The press kind of gave us that edge. We started forcing turnovers, flying around and the toughness grew from that."

Along with his game-high 22 points, Pegues had four rebounds, a game-high four assists and one turnover. Bothwell had 13 points, while Slawson had 12 points, four rebounds, three steals and one magnificent block midway through the second half after yet another Mercer offensive rebound. That led to a Slawson layup on the other end.

VanderWal accounted for all 11 of Furman's bench points and he and fellow reserve Alex Williams led the team with six rebounds apiece. Marcus Foster finished with nine points and two steals also for the Paladins. Furman had 19 points off those 13 turnovers by the Bears in the second half.

After those 10 offensive rebounds in the first half, Mercer had six more in the second half but only scored four points off those. The Bears made 9-of-26 field goals (34.6 percent) in the second half and none of those came against Furman's full-court press. Five of those nine came in the final 4:14 when Furman had things well in hand.

"I had two all-conference guards here on my left. That helps. ... They were just warriors. ... I hope I didn't offend anybody there. I was going by my all-conference ballot. I'm sorry about that," Richey said with a smile. "This was the third team in four games that really tried to change the tempo of the game on us. In one of those, I really regretted not doing something to change the tempo.

"We said all year, we lost well as a team. ... You learn from it. ... We had to go out and change the tempo because we're best when we're fast. The defense allowed us to do that today."

Jalyn McCreary was the lone double-figure scorer for Mercer (14-19) with 18 points.

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