Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Pegues does it again as Paladins win thriller

Teammates celebrate with J.P. Pegues (1) after he hit the game-winning three-pointer
in Furman's 65-62 win over Western Carolina Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Mr. Clutch? Onions? Stone cold killer? No matter what nickname you might like to use to describe Furman's J.P. Pegues after his latest game-winning heroics, he's seemingly going to have enough for every thrilling victory.

Much like he did to Virginia last season and what should've been done at Tulane this season, Pegues once again delivered at the finish line Saturday. Pegues' three-pointer with 0.8 seconds left lifted the Paladins to a 65-62 win over Western Carolina at Timmons Arena Saturday.

"The coaching staff and the players on this team trusted me in that moment. ... Thanks to them for putting that confidence in me because that plays a big part," Pegues said. "I was just looking at the clock, knowing I had time to shoot it or drive it. ... I work on that shot every day, so I decided to shoot it and had full belief it was going in.

"At the end of the day, we had five guys out there who could've made that shot. ... I got sprayed for them to tie it up on the three, so I just knew I wanted the last shot. I just crave those moments."

There were six ties and seven lead changes in this instant classic and nearly all of them were in the final three minutes. After the Catamounts' phenom Vonterius Woolbright found D.J. Campbell open on the wing for a game-tying three pointer with 17.3 seconds left, Furman played for the last shot but first called timeout. Coach Bob Richey had a play in mind, but history overruled it.

"I had a play ready that we haven't shown yet if we needed a game-winner. We got to the huddle and we'd gone small over the last seven minutes," Richey said. "We said, 'we're just going to put the ball in J.P.'s hands and let him get us home."

Coming out the timeout, Campbell - a 6-foot-2 guard - was on Pegues as he dribbled into the half court. At the top of the key, Alex Williams set a screen and Campbell followed him switching 6-8 forward Bernard Pelote on Pegues. With the final seconds ticking down and Pelote's feet just inside the free throw circle, Pegues took a step back and drilled the three with 0.6 seconds showing on the clock.

After video review, 0.8 seconds were left - just like the nightmare scenario at Tulane. This time, Furman didn't guard the inbounder and didn't have an officiating crew rewrite the list of things humanly possible on a basketball court in 0.8 seconds. Campbell's inbounds pass was tipped away by PJay Smith and Timmons erupted in celebration of the Paladins' fourth consecutive win.

"What a college basketball game. There won't be five better in the country today. The last two times we've played, we've just made one more play. Both times, it's been blow-for-blow, hit-for-hit," Richey said. "It was eerily similar to Tulane having the clock reset at 0.8 seconds, but that's the beauty of sports. The hard can feel like it's caving in on you a little bit.

"This time, I trusted my conviction and played it with a centerfielder. We told them to use the arc like an electric fence and don't go past it. We get the deflection and it's ballgame. Sometimes sports can teach you and that was one of those little funny moments. In New Orleans, I was in my hotel room that night just kicking myself. I was thinking I could coach for 30 more years and not see another full court, 0.8 (seconds) left and up three. I'll be darned if we didn't have one tonight. ... Seeing our team be able to celebrate a huge win after that exact situation tonight was a nice little bonus after a heck of a game."

In a rough game where both teams fought like crazy, bodies hit the floor on a routine basis. Furman (10-9, 4-2 Southern Conference) found a way down the stretch without Tyrese Hughey, who rolled an ankle with 15:43 left and never returned. The Paladins also played much of the second half without Pegues, who was battling leg cramps.

Much like he did to end the game, Pegues ended the first half with a three-pointer in the final seconds to give the Paladins a 36-26 lead at the break. Furman held the Catamounts to 34.4 precent shooting including 1-of-8 on three-pointers in the first half.

Western flipped that script on the Paladins in the second half. That 10-point was all gone when Woolbright hit a layup with 14:26 left to give the Catamounts a 39-38 lead.  While it never grew larger than five, Western maintained that lead for most of the next 11 minutes. With 3:22 left, Alex Williams' putback tied the game 55-55.

Marcus Foster was called for a foul on the other end and Woolbright hit both free throws to put the Catamounts back in front. Woolbright then blocked Foster's layup but Furman maintained possession. With time running out on the shot clock, Pegues found Foster who drilled a three to put Furman up 58-57. That was the Paladins' first made three of the second half, on its eighth attempt.

"Marcus' three was one of our best possessions of the second half. We got some movement, side-to-side, got the ball in the paint and kicked it out," Richey said. "It's just great seeing him back out there. Then we make the plays that we need to make late."

Woolbright again answered when he followed his own miss on a layup with 1:57 left to put Western back on top. In what will be overshadowed by the game-winning three, this is when Pegues really came through when needed most. His left-handed layup with 1:38 left gave Furman a 60-59 lead. Officials failed to see Richey calling timeout after the bucket, but that turned out just fine for the Paladins.

After being hounded by Foster most of the day, Woolbright found himself facing Carter Whitt on a switch. No longer facing Furman's top defender, Woolbright drove Whitt down towards the basket. As Woolbright spun to his left, he turned right into a double team and Foster made the steal. After a Furman timeout, Pegues drove to the basket and perfectly put a high spinning, left-handed layup over the outstretched arm of the bigger Woolbright to push the lead to 62-59 with 39 seconds left.

Campbell's tying three-pointer on the Catamounts' ensuing possession set the stage for Pegues' winner. Richey wasn't the only one confident in leaving it in the hands of Pegues.

"Everyone has a willingness to just play for one another. We really just just to see each other win," Foster said. "I knew J.P. was going to hit that shot as soon as Coach drew it up. When we play our best together, it's going to be hard to beat us."

Pegues finished with 17 points and four assists to lead Furman, while Foster had 14 points and nine rebounds. After hitting 15-of-21 three-pointers over the previous three games, Williams was 0-for-2 from beyond the arc Saturday. He came up huge in other ways though as he had 13 points and 11 rebounds for the first double-double of his career. Whitt, who had scored 35 points over his previous two games, was just 1-of-5 Saturday but he had four of the Paladins' 10 steals.

Woolbright had game-highs in points (27), rebounds (16), assists (6) and fouls drawn (8) for Western (15-4, 4-2).

Furman has another huge test Wednesday when it hosts Samford at 7 p.m. The Bulldogs (17-2, 6-0) enter on Division I-best 17-game winning streak.

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