Friday, March 17, 2023

Purple reigns as Furman ends another drought

J.P. Pegues, rear, and Mike Bothwell hug after Furman's 68-67 win over Virginia
at the NCAA Tournament Thursday in Orlando, Fla. Photo courtesy of Furman

ORLANDO, Fla. - If you go to all the trouble it took to end one 40-plus year drought, you might as well end another. Ten days after J.P. Pegues helped Furman reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 43 years, the Southern Conference Tournament's Most Outstanding Player helped the Paladins win their first NCAA Tournament game in 49 years.

Pegues drilled a three-pointer with 2.4 seconds left to lift No. 13 seed Furman to a stunning 68-67 upset win over fourth-seeded Virginia in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday. It's the second NCAA tourney win in school history. The other came on March 9, 1974 when Clyde Mayes had 21 points and 16 rebounds and Bruce Grimm scored 19 as the Paladins beat South Carolina, 75-67, at The Palestra in Philadelphia.

Furman (28-7) advances to take on San Diego State Saturday at 12:10 p.m. on CBS with a trip to Louisville, Ky. for the Sweet 16 on the line. The fifth-seeded Aztecs denied the Palmetto State a guarantee of having a team advance to the second weekend when they defeated College of Charleston, 63-57, Thursday.

"What an unbelievable college basketball game. All year we've been saying that this team just knows how to win. We knew we were going to have a great opponent in Virginia. We knew there were going to be some disadvantages in terms of their size, in terms of their physicality, the way they rebound, the way they defend," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "It's an unbelievable moment, and give all the glory to God for allowing me to be able to lead it, but this is a day these players just found a way.

"J.P., he didn't make the all-conference team somehow, but he's on the all-winner team because he knows how to win. He had a similar play in high school. That's why we recruited him so hard, because we watched his clutch clips and I watched him do something very similar in a huge state playoff game. When I saw the ball go up, I knew it was going in. What a day to be a Paladin."

Pegues' shot was the kind that will be replayed every March for years to come. But this wasn't your ordinary, game-winning three-pointer to lift a lower seed to an upset kind. It came as the result of a wild sequence for Furman defensively and finished off one of the most amazing victories considering what Furman had to overcome. Midway through the second half, the Paladins trailed by 12 and Virginia (25-8) had twice as many rebounds as they did. Leading scorer Mike Bothwell fouled out with 6:25 left and Furman trailing by six. Furman took its first lead with five minutes to go, but a veteran Cavaliers squad came back to hold a four-point lead with 13 seconds left.

The defensive adjustment

Furman fell behind 8-0 less than two minutes into the game and was down 17-7 midway through the first half. Against Virginia's stingy defense, the Paladins were able to get things going a bit but still trailed 32-27 at the half. Furman was 0-5 when trailing at the half in the regular season, but came back to beat Mercer at the SoCon Tournament thanks to a defensive adjustment. Another defensive adjustment Thursday made the Paladins 2-0 when trailing at the half in the postseason.

With 11:06 left in the game, Furman trailed 52-40 and was getting outrebounded 34-16. The only thing the Cavaliers weren't doing well at that point was shooting the three, but they hadn't really tried to. Virginia was 2-of-5 from three at that point, having just hit both of those over the previous two minutes.

Furman went to a 1-3-1 zone defense and proceeded to outrebound the Cavaliers 15-5 over that final 11:06. Teams faced with a zone will often try to shoot its way out of it, but Virginia simply couldn't. The Cavs went 0-for-7 from three over those last 11 minutes.

"The way you rebound it really well is that you make them take tough shots. We were able to kind of knock them off rhythm a little bit. ... We start forcing some misses and then we were able to board them," Richey said. "We were trying to figure out a way to get them out of what they were doing. I didn't know if it was going to work or not, but at that point in the game I thought we had no choice."
Jalen Slawson had 19 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in Furman's
68-67 win over Virginia Thursday. Photo courtesy of Furman
The Slaw that stirs the drink

Some questionable calls got Bothwell in foul trouble. Most notably, a costly third foul away from the ball where he hit the deck after taking a forearm to the chest. That came with just 51 seconds left in the first half. Furman trailed 40-30 with 16:15 left when Bothwell was called for his fourth foul. The Paladins were down 47-38 with 12:57 left when Richey called Bothwell back to the scorer's table. By the next dead ball for Bothwell to check in, it was 50-38.

Bothwell hit a big three to cut the lead to four and give him 2,001 points in his career. But two minutes later, Bothwell got entangled with Virginia's 6-foot-11 Kadin Shedrick on a lob and was whistled for his fifth foul. Richey buried his face in his hands and spun away from the view. Bothwell's head sunk for a split second, but then looked up. Rather than linger on the court for what may have been his final time as a Paladin, he sprinted toward the bench.

As it turns out, there was a reason Bothwell did that.

"I thought one of the biggest plays of the game didn't happen on the court. It happened when Bothwell fouled out. I was talking to the official and when I walked back in the huddle, Bothwell had the huddle," Richey said. "He said, 'we're going to find a way to win this game.' All these guys to my left (Jalen Slawson, Pegues and Marcus Foster) and the whole locker room just kept believing."

The only other game Bothwell fouled out of this year was Furman's last loss at The Citadel. After Bothwell's fifth foul, Slawson seemed to make it his personal mission for the Paladins to avoid that same result.

The SoCon Player of the Year had a three-point play, rebounded Virginia's next miss, hit a three-pointer, rebounded Virginia's next miss and had another three-point play. Slawson's personal 9-0 run over a 68-second span capped Furman's 19-4 run and gave the Paladins their first lead of the day at 57-54 with 5:02 left.

"As that huddle ended, I told Mike that we weren't going to let today be his last time putting a jersey on. I know if roles were reversed, the same thing would have happened," Slawson said. "These guys told me they believed in me and told me I was being a little bit passive. They told me to be a little bit more aggressive. As the game came, we got some good actions and these guys did a great job of giving me good looks."

The shot

Furman held the lead for the next three-and-half minutes. But after Pegues hit a pair of free throws to push the lead to 63-60 with 2:33 left, the Paladins didn't score for more than two minutes. Virginia freshman Isaac McKneely, a 74 percent foul shooter, missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 35 seconds left. Kihei Clark, an 80 percent foul shooter, hit 1-of-2 free throws to extend the Cavs' lead to 67-63 with 19 seconds left.

On Furman's ensuing possession, Pegues drove to the hole, drew a double team and dished to Garrett Hien who drew a foul. Hien, a 51 percent foul shooter, rattled in the first throw. The second bounced off the front of the rim, the back of the rim and the front again before falling through to cut the lead to 67-65 with 12 seconds left.

Clark, a fifth-year senior who started for Virginia's 2019 national championship team, took a pass in the corner. He was immediately crowded by Pegues and Alex Williams. With the Cavaliers out of timeouts, Clark heaved a long pass that Hien leaped to intercept just beyond midcourt. Hien went from safety to quarterback as he fired a perfect pass to Pegues on the right wing. With ice water in his veins, Pegues drilled the three with 2.4 seconds left.

"Garrett Hien has had some issues with free throws this year, and it's not because he can't shoot them. He just had to believe in it. He went up there with poise and made two huge free throws," Richey said. "We jumped in and had him trapped. I was calling for a foul, but the good Lord knew that they couldn't hear me, and they threw it to us."

For the record, Hien said he never played safety or quarterback, or very much football at all. Just one year as a kicker in seventh grade.

"The ball felt like it was in the air for an eternity. Once I got it, I didn't have much time to think and I saw J.P. wide open and I hit him," Hien said. "He shoots that shot in warm ups every day. He makes it today and the rest is history."

Prior to that game-winner, Pegues had missed each of his last 15 three-point attempts. He certainly saved his best for last Thursday as his shot looked good from start to finish as it splashed through the net.

"We needed to get a steal, a turnover somehow. And we did pretty good denying out, making them force a tough pass, which he did. And he threw it to Garrett Hien. As soon as I saw it go into Garrett's hands, I was like, 'I want the ball,' " Pegues said. "I feel like those are moments I've craved my whole life, and I feel like I'm built for. As soon as I got the ball and saw the shot attempt I had, I knew all I could do at that point was just rise up and shoot it. I had full belief that it was going in and it did."

Hold your breath

There was still time for one more shot for Virginia. Nobody knew that more than Furman after how last season ended. Reece Beekman's long three looked an awful lot like Chattanooga's last year, except from the opposite wing. But this one bounced off the backboard and rim no good and Furman - along with fans from every other team except Virginia - erupted in celebration.

With apologies to Walt Disney World's reputation of being the "happiest place on earth," nobody at Magic Kingdom Thursday was happier than anyone in purple at the Magic's Amway Center.

"I couldn't help but go back, when I saw the shot in the air, to a year ago. To a play that probably still makes it on March Madness. And that ball (Thursday) floated in the air and it missed. It's just a reminder, like we said all year, count it all joy," Richey said. "You don't know the timing of things or the timing of life. It doesn't always go how you want, but this team has persevered and they did it today. It's a microcosm of what they learned. They just keep reliving the lesson and keep finding ways."
Marcus Foster hit four three-pointers and had 14 points in Furman's
68-67 win over Virginia Thursday. Photo courtesy of Furman
Foster delivers

Coming off the SoCon championship game in which Foster hit a pair of big three-pointers down the stretch to seal the win, he continued to stroke it from outside Thursday. After not making more than two threes in a game since hitting 3-of-4 against Western Carolina on Feb. 11, Foster hit 4-of-9 Thursday. It's the most threes for Foster in a game since going 6-for-7 against Mercer on Jan. 11.

Seemingly every time Virginia was possibly poised to make a large lead insurmountable, Foster delivered. When the Cavs led by 12 early in the second half, Foster hit a three. A couple of minutes later, he hit another to cut that lead in half. When Furman went on a 10-2 run to cut the Cavaliers' lead to four with 6:53 left, Foster had half of those on a three and a layup.

"My mindset as a shooter is every time I get a good, clean look, I let it go. My teammates honestly get pretty mad at me if I don't after a good look. Every time I had some space today, I could hear my coaches and teammates just saying, 'shoot it,' " Foster said. "I fired that thing up and was just fortunate enough to make four of them. I'm just thankful I was given the opportunity to get those looks."

Foster finished with 14 points, five rebounds and two blocked shots. Slawson led the Paladins with a game-high 19 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. Pegues and Bothwell each scored 11, and Pegues also had four assists. Hien had seven points and six rebounds, while Williams accounted for all the bench scoring with six points. Williams had the best plus-minus Thursday as Furman outscored Virginia by 13 during his 25 minutes on the court.

Shedrick led the Cavaliers with 15 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks.

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As always, thank you for reading and supporting the Furman Sports Report. This blog would not have been possible without the financial support of its initial sponsor, Tommy's Country Ham House. Without a sponsor following Tommy's retirement, I now rely on donations to help with the cost of travel to cover the football and basketball teams. If you'd like to make a donation, you can do so at the PayPal link here. Thanks again for your support and consideration!

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