Friday, December 8, 2023

Battle-tested, beaten up Paladins return home

J.P. Pegues had 21 points and six assists in Furman's
loss at Arkansas Monday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Barely a month into basketball season, Furman has seemingly already dealt with a season's worth of adversity. They've faced most of it in between flights from one solid program to another. After playing six of their last seven games on the road, the Paladins (4-5) will play three of their next four at home starting with a game against Bob Jones Saturday at 2 p.m.

Furman is coming off a three-day road trip in which it faced a pair of 2023 Sweet 16 teams 1,300 miles apart. The Paladins lost in heartbreaking fashion at undefeated Princeton last Saturday before falling by 14 at Arkansas on Monday in a game that was closer than the final score indicated. While Furman came up short in both games, in some ways they were two of its best performances this season.

"It's a hurt locker room right now because they went out there and played hard. We've chosen this schedule and we're not going to shy away from playing anybody. That's something that's important to us," Furman coach Bob Richey said on the Furman Sports Network's postgame show Monday. "Obviously, there was heartbreak on Saturday and a tough fight tonight. But I'm telling you right now, anybody that knows an ounce about basketball knows that we got better on this trip.
"We've had all kind of rotational things to figure out, navigating injuries and now with Marcus (Foster) not being here. With all those things, this team went out and fought tonight. That's really all I asked them to do was to go play for one another. We had four double-figure scorers and to get 15 assists against that pressure is hard to do. I think we see guys growing up."

Following its last home game - a win over South Carolina State on Nov. 28 - Richey was excited to possibly have his full squad healthy for the first time when the Paladins traveled to Princeton. After tip-off, that feeling lasted nearly one half. With 35 seconds left in the first half, Foster got tangled up and his knee twisted in a nasty way. Furman's leading scorer never returned.

Prior to Monday's game, Richey said that Foster would be out until around the middle of January. While that's undoubtedly a tough blow, Richey was thankful that it wasn't a season-ending injury. At first glance, it appeared it could be one.

In the second half at Princeton, the Paladins persevered without Foster. A J.P. Pegues jumper before the first half buzzer gave Furman a 28-27 lead. That also started a 10-0 run as the Paladins scored the first eight points of the second half to push the lead to 36-27. That Furman advantage grew to as many as 11 points on four separate occasions in the second half, the last coming at 65-54 with four minutes remaining.

The Paladins led 67-58 with less than three minutes to play before Princeton went on a 9-0 run over a 62-second span to tie the game. Pegues' jumper with 1:23 left put Furman back in front 69-67. Over the final 67 seconds, the Paladins had two turnovers and the Tigers had three offensive rebounds on its final possession before Princeton's Matt Allocco drilled a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer.

Furman had no time to dwell on the heartbreak. After flying to Arkansas and having a walkthrough on Sunday, the Paladins took on a Razorbacks' team coming off a five-point win over Duke their last time out. On Monday, Furman hit each of its first five three-pointers before it's first two pointer. Carter Whitt's layup with 13:03 left cut Arkansas' lead to 18-17.

The Paladins kept things pretty close throughout the half and Davis Molnar's putback at the buzzer cut the Razorbacks lead to 40-35 at the break. Arkansas (6-3) shot 61.3 percent from the floor and 73.7 percent from the foul line in a 57-point second half. Furman cut the lead to 58-52 with less than 11 minutes left before the Razorbacks went on an 12-0 run. Pegues scored 11 consecutive points for the Paladins to help slice an 85-70 lead to 88-81 with 1:12 left. Arkansas ended the game on a 9-2 spurt to win 97-83.

Pegues hit 10-of-10 free throws and scored a game-high 21 points with six assists to lead Furman. Alex Williams hit five three-pointers on his way to a career-high 20-point effort. Whitt finished with 14 points, while Garrett Hien added 10.

"We've got a pretty clear picture of who we are. We've seen some tremendous growth. We can be disappointed, but I'm not going to let this team be discouraged," Richey said. "A year ago right about now, we played a similar type of team and lost by 30 (at N.C. State) in Raleigh. It's part of the growth process. We won't see a team like this until we get to the NCAA Tournament, but when you get to the NCAA Tournament these experiences prove beneficial.
"This schedule is objectively tougher than last year's. That not debatable at this point. ... Like I told everybody last year, once we get to league play we're going to be fine. We're going to be calloused. When you get to league play, you've got to be able to deal with adversity. ... Learning how to grow through things is critical if you want to build a championship team."

After facing Bob Jones on Saturday, Furman plays at Tulane Thursday at 7 p.m. The Paladins will close out 2023 with home games against Presbyterian on Dec. 19 and Anderson on Dec. 30.

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