Friday, November 10, 2023

Paladins get rings, win opener and host Belmont

Freshman Cooper Bowser had 13 points in Furman's 84-68 win
over North Greenville Monday. Photo courtesy of Furman

A celebration 43 years in the making took place prior to the Furman men's basketball season opener Monday night at Timmons Arena. Nearly every member of last season's Southern Conference championship team were in attendance, including Mike Bothwell, to receive their championship rings and watch the banner be unveiled.

The only two who couldn't make it were Jalen Slawson, who's a little busy these days as an NBA player, and walk-on Rett Lister, who's busy as a graduate assistant at Kent State. In true Furman "family" style, Slawson and Lister's parents returned to accept rings on their sons' behalf. Lister's father, Chad, then headed to the visitor's bench where he coached a pesky North Greenville squad that Furman couldn't shake for much of the night.

A trio of newcomers playing in their first games at Furman accounted for 19 of the Paladins' final 23 points to help the team pull away for an 84-68 win. Cooper Bowser, a 6-foot-11 freshman, scored 11 of his 13 points in the final 5:22 - highlighted by three dunks - to lead Furman's late charge.

"Give (North Greenville) a lot of credit. Chad had those guys ready to play. They were confident and played really, really hard," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "We didn't play clean. That's pretty obvious. I thought we played really hard. We had 31 deflections, so I think the effort was there. We just fouled way too much and turned the ball over way too much.

"We had some guys step up, including (redshirt freshman) Davis Molnar. We found out he was playing today about 4:30. He'd been out of practice for about five days. For him to go out there and play the way he did in a critical moment just shows the competitor that he is. I thought Cooper Bowser had a great debut and its obvious that he's got a tremendous amount of potential."

Furman standout J.P. Pegues didn't dress out for the opener after taking a hard fall in a scrimmage at Auburn eight days earlier. Without their point guard, the Paladins got off to a bit of a slow start. They trailed 14-13 six minutes in. Furman led 26-22 with less than six minutes left in the first half before Alex Williams went a personal 6-0 run.

Unfortunately for the Paladins, that also marked the end of Williams' night. Having already had his middle and ring fingers taped together following a left hand injury earlier in the game, Williams landed hand first on the ground after drawing a foul on a drive to the basket. After sinking both free throws to make it 32-22, Williams left and didn't return.

The lead extended to 42-25 on Marcus Foster's layup with 55 seconds left in the half, but North Greenville scored the final seven points of the half over the final 36 seconds. Former Berea High standout Savion Brown drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to cut Furman's lead to 42-32 at the half.

Furman was presented with its 2022-23 Southern Conference
championship rings Monday. Photo courtesy of Furman

The Crusaders got the lead down to six on three different occasions in the second half. The last coming with 8:57 left before Foster answered with a layup. While he only made 1-of-7 three-pointers, Foster's drives to the basket were a key Monday. Just 18 seconds after his layup, Foster headed to the bench with his fourth foul on a particularly rotten call.

With Monday's leading scorer (Foster), the biggest sparkplug reserve (Williams) and the star point guard (Pegues) all on the bench, new faces closed out opening night in style. Transfer PJay Smith and Molnar had layups to push the lead to 65-53 with 7:06 left. Furman then had six points in 66 seconds on a pair of Ben VanderWal free throws and a pair of Bowser dunks. The last of those gave the Paladins a 71-60 lead with 4:44 left and it remained a double-digit lead the rest of the way.

The group of newcomers played well enough that Foster never had to return.

"That was less about Marcus and more about the five guys out there. In that part of the game, they brought us some energy defensively and some movement offensively," Richey said. "The game was as complimentary in that segment as I had felt it all night, so I just decided to stay with them."

Furman overcame 18 turnovers - a mark it reached only three times last season - by forcing 20. All 10 Paladins who played got at least one steal as the team finished with 14. Furman overcame hitting just 3-of-21 three-pointers by going 27-of-39 from the foul line.

Along with Bowser's 13 points off the bench, Foster had a team-high 18 points and Carter Whitt had 10 points and three assists. Smith had nine points, three assists and three steals, while Tyrese Hughey had eight points and eight rebounds in less than 16 minutes of playing time, thanks partly to four fouls. VanderWal had nine points and two blocked shots, while Williams scored eight. Molnar had seven points, eight rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots in 22 minutes off the bench.

"It felt great to be out there," Molnar said of his first collegiate game. "I'm put in there to get rebounds and just do the little things to help our team win. ... It's pretty cool that we all had a steal. I don't know if I've ever seen that before. That's just our whole team strapping it up on defense. We hit all of our defensive goals tonight."

Brown finished with more made 3-pointers than Furman combined for as he made 4-of-8. He finished with 18 points off the bench to lead the Crusaders.

"I was hugging Savion (Brown) at the end. He works camp for us. He comes out here and makes 5-of-10 shots in the first half," Richey said with a smile. "I told him I was going to have to deduct his camp salary this summer for coming in here and putting all those buckets on us."

With the opening night celebration of last year's historic team and the season-opening preliminary bout concluded, it's time for the main event of opening week. For the third consecutive season, mid-major powers square off when Furman hosts Belmont Friday at 7 p.m.

Belmont's Malik Dia hit a pair of free throws with six seconds left to lift the Bruins to a thrilling 89-87 win in Monday's opener. Given the last two years of their series with Furman, Friday's game could be another thriller.

Two years ago in Nashville, the Paladins and Bruins put on a display of basketball that had no business being played one week into the season. It felt more like March and that instant classic went Belmont's way in a 95-89 overtime win.

Last season in Greenville, the game was tied at the half before Furman put up 52 points in the second half to record a 15-point win. Bothwell scored 25 points in the victory.

"Let's get this thing packed Friday. We've got a great opponent coming in here. (Belmont coach) Casey (Alexander) does a great job," Richey said. "Belmont's had a lot of success for years and years, so this will be a marquee Mid-Major game."

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