Thursday, November 16, 2023

Pegues helps Paladins race past Belmont

In his first game of the season, J.P. Pegues had 23 points, nine rebounds and
nine assists in Furman's 99-76 win over Belmont. Photo courtesy of Furman

J.P. Pegues' return to the Furman men's basketball lineup wasn't the only reason the Paladins went from sputtering to a finely tuned machine in the span of a work week.

But it sure didn't hurt.

After missing the season opening 16-point win over Division II North Greenville last Monday, Pegues nearly had a triple-double in Furman's 23-point win over fellow Mid-Major power Belmont on Friday. Pegues had 23 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in leading the Paladins to a 99-76 win.

"I was just happy to be back out there. After all the adversity I've faced over the past few months (from a different injury at the end of last season), not being out there last game kind of affected me emotionally," Pegues said. "Just being back out there with my teammates helped me get lost in the game tonight."

Pegues closed out his breakthrough sophomore season last year by earning Southern Conference Tournament MVP honors and hitting the most historic shot in school history to beat Virginia in the NCAA Tournament. On Friday, he immediately picked up where he left off.

On Furman's first possession, Pegues soared to the hole, made the bucket and drew the foul. While he missed the free throw, Garrett Hien grabbed the first of Furman's 14 offensive rebounds on a night where the Paladins shot 52.1 percent from the floor.

Pegues was one of five Paladins in double figures. Furman outrebounded the taller Bruins, 51-34. It made 12-of-29 three-pointers, had 25 assists and 14 turnovers. Against North Greenville, Furman was 3-of-21 on threes, had 10 assists and 18 turnovers. Nine of those 14 turnovers Friday came in the second half after the Paladins had already double-digit advantage. In what's been a fun series to watch, Belmont just seems to bring out the best brand of Furman basketball.

"We know J.P.'s value, but I think we can see how much better he's gotten. His presence is just elite. ... He just played with an unbelievable presence and swagger," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "We had a lot of guys really step up. Marcus (Foster), in the second half, stepped up and drilled some big shots. You can see just how tough PJay Smith is. For Garrett to come out and respond the way he did, I was really, really proud of him. He did not play the game he wanted to on Monday. He confronted the brutal facts of it and we had some good discussions about it. ... He couldn't come out any better tonight."

The Paladins' big men were an early force that helped spearhead building that double-digit lead in the first half. After Pegues' first bucket, Hien scored nine of Furman's next 11 points including a dunk and a pair of three-pointers. The Paladins led 18-13 when Cooper Bowser scored their next six points over the next two minutes. The true freshman also had two rebounds and a blocked shot in that span.

After Bowser's last basket in that stretch, Ben VanderWal had a block that led to a Tyrese Hughey three-pointer. That was the beginnings of a 12-0 run that pushed the lead to 34-17. Later in the first half, Hughey had a dunk on a fast break, Hien had a layup and Pegues made two free throws to make it 40-21 with five minutes left in the first half.

"Cooper looked like an absolute pro out there for a little while in that first half. He still has some things he's working on for sure, but it doesn't take long to figure out how good he's going to be," Richey said. "One of the unsung heroes of the game was Tyrese Hughey. He had a huge impact on the game. I told the team (Thursday) he was going to be the X-factor.

"He had some grown man rebounds. ... He was plus-32 (Furman's scoring advantage) in 23 minutes. That's incredible."

It was a basketball clinic on both ends of the court by Furman until those last five minutes of the first half. The Paladins overcame seven consecutive missed field goals and three turnovers down the stretch though. Hien had a layup and Pegues buried a three in the final 51 seconds to push the lead to 46-31 at the break.

Furman maintained a double-digit advantage for 19:40 of the second half. After Cade Tyson's three-point play sliced the lead to to 69-61 with 10:50 left, Smith answered with a pretty little jumper from the middle of the paint 20 seconds later.

In addition to his 23/9/9 line, Pegues drew eight fouls, had two steals and a block. Foster added 17 points and seven rebounds, while Smith had 15 points and four assists. Hien finished with 13 points and six rebounds, while Bowser had 10 points and three blocks in 14 minutes off the bench. Hughey had seven points and 10 rebounds, VanderWal scored seven points and Carter Whitt added six points and five assists. Davis Molnar had five rebounds in 10 minutes off the bench.

"We knew going in that our depth could be a huge advantage for us. We play nine or 10 guys a night and they have a seven-man rotation," Foster said. "Given the fast tempo game that both teams play with, we thought we could wear them down. By the second half, you could feel that. I just want to credit our bench for coming in and doing what they do.

"Tonight was just a classic Furman basketball night."

Furman now turns its attention to competing in a solid field at the Myrtle Beach Invitational. The Paladins will face Liberty at approximately 7 p.m. in Thursday's opening round. Furman will face either Wichita State or Coastal Carolina in Friday's second round.

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