Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Paladins stay connected in win over ETSU

Carter Whitt had 14 points, five rebounds, five assists and four steals in
Furman's 82-73 win over ETSU Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

For just the third time this season, the Furman men's basketball team had the same five starters as it did in the previous game Saturday when the Paladins hosted East Tennessee State. That consistency led to another satisfying outcome. Alex Williams and J.P. Pegues scored 20 points apiece and Carter Whitt's level of play continued to rise as Furman recorded an 82-73 victory before a crowd of 2,273 at Timmons Arena.

Saturday marked the Paladins' sixth consecutive win over the Bucs, which pulled them even in the all-time series at 34-34. The win also got Furman (8-9) even in the Southern Conference standings at 2-2. While the Paladins weren't quite as hot as they were when they shot a season-high 55 percent from the floor in a win over The Citadel last time out, they held a lead for all but 89 seconds Saturday. Furman led by as many as 21 with 11:40 left in the second half.

"That was a fun Saturday afternoon in front of a great crowd with great energy. I thought the crowd really affected the game, especially on that run in the second half," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "We started making some mistakes there late and it was kind of like, 'what's going on?' but did what we had to do to close it out.

"I'm really proud offensively of how we're moving the ball all of a sudden. It's amazing to go from what we saw a week ago with very little movement and a bunch of bad shots to the last two games with just guys trusting each other and playing with one another and making shots easy for one another. I think in the first half, we were 1.33 offensively. That's incredible, especially versus a team like ETSU with how well-coached they aren't how hard they play."

The only other time the Paladins had the same starting lineup in consecutive games this season came in a three-game stretch against Arkansas, Bob Jones and Tulane. That was right after Marcus Foster was injured at Princeton. The difference in the lineup the last two games from those three has been Ben VanderWal and Carter Whitt starting in place of Garrett Hien and PJay Smith.

Richey said the change wasn't about Hien and Smith as much as it was about just finding the right mix to start. This new lineup allows Williams to shift from the three to the four position and he's responded by hitting 10-of-13 three pointers over the past two games.

"I give A-Will a lot of credit. He gets 20 points and seven rebounds and does it on 13 shots, going 3-for-4 from three. I thought he let me coach him in terms of the shot selection. He's really trying to do better there," Richey said. "He's been so much more coachable there and I can see him really trying. We challenged him defensively tonight too. ... Going with A-Will at the four, we knew we were going to have to fight and scrap like heck on the glass. We won the boards by four and I thought that was a big key to the game."

The lineup change has seemed to benefit all involved but most importantly, the team. Hien came on and scored all 10 of his points consecutively in a less than three-minute stretch to turn Furman's 16-14 deficit into a 24-16 lead midway through the first half. VanderWal had six points, six rebounds and three assists, while Smith was 0-for-2 from the floor, but grabbed five rebounds and drew three fouls.

No one has seen their personal stock rise as much as Whitt has the last two games though. Whitt had 14 points, five assists, five rebounds and four steals Saturday. While Whitt also had five turnovers, they weren't the same out-of-control kind that have been an issue for him at times in the past.

There's often a fine line between a turnover and a spectacular play and Whitt pulled off the latter right out of the gate Saturday. He made an incredible pass through traffic to Williams, who in turn, made an incredible reverse layup to open the game's scoring and get the crowd roaring from the start.

"Carter's vision is exceptional. Sometimes he can see what others can't. That's his gift. ... I saw A-Will cut and thought, 'man, that's going to be a tough window,' but he led him and A-Will made an unbelievably talented play," Richey said. "I'll take five turnovers if I get 14 points, four steals, nine deflections, 5-for-9 from the floor, all free throws made and five rebounds."

After Hien's flurry, Furman led the rest of the way. The Paladins led by as many as nine in the first half on two occasions - one on a Whitt steal and layup and then a pair of Whitt free throws on Furman's next possession.

Much like Hien did in the first half, Pegues had a personal run in the second half to give Furman a commanding lead. With just under 15 minutes to play, the Paladins led 55-45 before Pegues outscored ETSU 11-3 over a stretch of two minutes and one second. Williams' three-point play - off an assist from Pegues - made it a 16-3 run to give Furman a 69-48 lead with 11:40 left.

The Bucs (9-8, 1-3) cut that 21-point lead down to seven with 4:48 left. After a free throw by Williams, Whitt was all over the play-by-play for the next couple of minutes. He had a blocked shot, a jumper, a rebound and then an assist to Tyrese Hughey. In addition to making the layup, Hughey drew the fifth foul of ETSU big Jadyn Parker. Parker fouled out with 10 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots, so his absence obviously helped Furman close things out.

"There's a certain creativity in Carter's game that you've got to let flow. In the year-and-a-half we've been together, the compromise has been 'I want you to be in free space and I want you to go, but here are the things I need you to do.' The big battle for he and I on that is that I want feet on the ground." Richey said. "Once you launch into the air, you have to make a decision and it's a rushed decision. ... I'm just really proud of him. His growth is why we do what we do."

Jaden Seymour had a game-high 23 points to lead the Bucs.

Furman will try to move above .500 in the SoCon Wednesday when it plays at VMI at 6 p.m.

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