Saturday, December 2, 2023

Paladins top Bulldogs ahead of test at Princeton

PJay Smith scored a season-high 20 points in Furman's 86-78
win over S.C. State Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Coming off a tough stretch of road games and ahead of a really tough road stretch, Furman appeared to be set for a bit of a respite when South Carolina State visited Timmons Arena Tuesday. However, the Bulldogs played nothing like a team that's only won once away from home over the past two seasons. Instead, S.C. State played like it did here last season when it forced 20 turnovers and Furman needed a 19-4 second half run to break away for a victory.

On Tuesday, transfer guard PJay Smith scored a season-high 20 points and Furman shot 61 percent in the second half to rally for an 86-78 win in its first home game in 18 days. The Paladins (4-3) trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half and led by as many as 14 late in the second half. Furman then withstood a pretty horrific finish in which it had five turnovers and made 3-of-6 free throws over the final 3:09.

"A win is a win and we needed one, so we will take it. Trying to close that thing out was frustrating. It looked like we were trying to solve calculus problems," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "It wasn't the prettiest win, but give them credit. They played hard and really came out with some pressure. It took us a little while to settle in."

An Alex Williams dunk off a J.P. Pegues' steal gave Furman a 14-8 lead seven minutes in. The Bulldogs (2-6) responded with a 16-0 run over the next four minutes to take a 24-14 lead. S.C. State led 33-24 with four minutes to play in the first half. At that point, the Bulldogs had made 4-of-5 three-pointers while the Paladins were just 3-of-14 from three.

Smith knocked down back-to-back threes 23 seconds apart and that seemed to turn the tide from the outside. Furman made 7 of its final 17 three-pointers while the Bulldogs made 3-of-12. A three by Williams in the final minute cut S.C. State's lead to 36-35 at the break.

"My teammates were working for me. My first one rattled out, so I was just trying to get us back on track," Smith said. "They kept finding me and I got those two threes and we ended up going into half with a little bit of momentum.

"We've been putting a lot of pressure recently on J.P. and Marcus (Foster) to score a lot. I just felt like I needed to be more aggressive, get my teammates involved and look for my shot more just to take a little pressure off of them."

Furman trailed 40-37 just over two minutes into the second half before Williams tied the game on a three on a possession in which he grabbed a pair of offensive rebounds. Smith drained another three with 15:51 left to put the Paladins back on top for good. Another three by Smith pushed Furman's lead to 62-48 with just under 10 minutes to play and Furman never led by less than eight the rest of the way.

In addition to his Furman career-high 20 points, Smith tied his career-high by making 6-of-7 three-pointers. It was another great response from Smith, who didn't start for the first time this season Saturday at UAB. He did score 15 off the bench Saturday, but it wasn't enough in Furman's 92-86 loss to the 2023 NIT runner-up.

"We worked on defense all day in practice (Monday) and we kept stats on it live. We had a big board out there with all the things that matter on defense," Richey said. "We basically told them that the guy who has the most points (off deflections, steals, blocks, etc.) at the end is guaranteed to start. It was PJay. It's funny how that works.

"The game honors toughness. It always has and it always will. He was mentally ready to play today."

Smith was one of six Paladins in double figure scoring. Foster had 16 points and six rebounds. Williams and Garrett Hien had 12 points apiece, while Pegues scored 11 and Carter Whitt had 10. Pegues had game-highs in rebounds (8), assists (6) and steals (3) and also had a blocked shot.

"I'm very pleased with (offense), but we've got to continue to get better in our defensive focus," Richey said. "I think we will. This is a really hard stretch that we're in, but it's what we wanted. I think it's going to prepare us for what we need to be when we need to be really, really good."

Furman might not be "really, really good" yet, but they may need to play like it Saturday. That's when a pair of Cinderellas from the 2023 NCAA Tournament face off as Furman plays at Princeton at 2 p.m. The Paladins will then make it back-to-back games against teams that made the Sweet 16 last season when they play at Arkansas Monday at 8 p.m.

Richey believes that for the first time all season, Furman could be completely healthy Saturday. That would mean that Ben VanderWal would be available. VanderWal didn't dress out for the S.C. State game after having an appendectomy.

"I've watched them a couple of times live. I like how they play. It's a good brand of basketball. They're really good and they're tough," Richey said. "They can score it, pass it, move it and space it. They're as good as anybody we've played so far this year. ... If we go up there and play defense, I think it will be a great game."

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