Saturday, January 13, 2024

Williams' shooting lifts Paladins past Citadel

Alex Williams hit seven three-pointers and scored 26 points in Furman's
82-68 win over The Citadel Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

When Furman basketball's top shooters are going through a slump, Paladins coach Bob Richey may have to remind them to shoot their way out of it. Alex Williams doesn't appear to be one that ever needs that reminder.

Coming off Furman's worst shooting night of the season in a loss at Chattanooga last Saturday, Williams led the Paladins to their best shooting night of the season in an 82-68 win over The Citadel Wednesday at Timmons Arena. Williams hit seven three-pointers and scored 26 points for Furman, which made 55 percent (33-of-60) of its field goals after making 27.5 percent (19-of-69) at Chattanooga.

In defeating their oldest rival, the Paladins (7-9, 1-2 Southern Conference) snapped a three-game losing skid in a game that finally looked like "Furman basketball" again. Backed by Williams' 7-of-9 showing, the Paladins made 13-of-31 three-pointers. This came after a four-game stretch in which Furman was just 18-of-111 from three.

In addition to the poor shooting night at Chattanooga, Furman also had only six assists - its fewest in a game in four years. On Wednesday, the Paladins had 28 assists led by Carter Whitt's career-high 10.

"We made sure we came out and looked like a Furman team. We'd gotten a little bit outside of our identity," Richey said. "I've had to do a better job of getting this thing into structure and demanding that we take great shots and demanding that we depend on one another.

"We took 26 bad shots on Saturday according to our grading system. Unfortunately for us, we can't do that. No team can do that. You can sit there and say 'we can't make shots.' Well, we didn't earn the right to make shots (Saturday)."

After missing the SoCon opener at UNC Greensboro with an injury, Williams came off the bench at Chattanooga and was 5-of-18 from the floor, including 1-for-11 from three. In Furman's national-high 13th different starting lineup this season on Wednesday, Williams rejoined those five and immediately went to work leaving the Chattanooga game in the dust.

Williams scored Furman's first point at the foul line, made a steal and then hit the Paladins' first field goal - a three-pointer - in the opening 84 seconds. That three started a spurt that Tyrese Hughey capped with a three and a dunk to give Furman a 14-6 lead less than four minutes in.

Furman took its first double-digit lead of the game thanks to a flurry of Williams' threes midway through the first half. Williams hit three threes in a span of 80 seconds, each one seemingly further away than the last, as the Paladins took a 33-20 lead and forced a Citadel timeout with 9:42 left. On Furman's next possession out of the timeout, Williams used the attention he was getting defensively to find Cooper Bowser for a layup to push the lead to 15.

"We just got back to our identity - passing up a good shot for a great shot," Williams said. "When I get hot like that, I feel like I can shoot it from anywhere but I still have to make sure it's at least a good shot."

The Paladins did have a dry spell that allowed the Bulldogs (8-8, 0-3) to trim the lead down to four with 1:35 left. J.P. Pegues found Garrett Hien for a layup as time expired to give Furman a 44-36 lead at the break. The Paladins made 9-of-18 three-pointers in the opening half and had assists on 16 of their 17 buckets.

Citadel got the lead down to 48-45 three-and-a-half minutes into the second half before Pegues again found Hien for a layup. That was followed by back-to-back threes by Pegues and Williams to push the lead back to double figures at 56-45.

From the 14-minute mark to the 5:13 mark, Furman outscored the Bulldogs 21-8 to take its biggest lead of the night at 77-57. Highlights of that stretch included a beautiful bounce pass from Whitt to Ben VanderWal for a dunk and later a defensive deflection by VanderWal that Whitt corralled. Whitt then raced down the middle of the floor before dishing to Pegues for a layup.

"That's Furman basketball - defense leading to offense, getting out in transition and running," said VanderWal. "Carter was awesome. ... He is lethal off ball screens and off the drive and he made really good decisions tonight."

Not to be overlooked by the offensive turnaround, Furman's defense got back to what it wants to be as well. Citadel's 3-of-16 shooting from three were the fewest makes by a Furman opponent since Belmont hit 3-of-21 on Nov. 10.

After missing a few games with an injury, Citadel leading scorer A.J. Smith was held to 11 points on 5-of-16 shooting in his return. Elijah Morgan, the Bulldogs' second-leading scorer, had 15 points but it came on 6-of-15 shooting including 0-for-7 from beyond the arc. Morgan entered Wednesday ranked No. 1 in the SoCon - and near the top 10 nationally - in three-point shooting at 46.5 percent (46-of-99).

"Our defense has been getting progressively better each game. We still have a long way to go, but tonight was a great step in that direction," Williams said. "We know J.P.'s going to play defense every time. He's just a warrior and we get that energy from him. We just all feed off the way he plays and talk to each other a lot more on the court."

Williams was one of five Paladins in double figures and also had four assists. Coming off the bench Wednesday, Hien and PJay Smith had 11 and 10 points, respectively. VanderWal and Pegues each scored 10 with Pegues adding six assists and four rebounds. Hughey finished with eight points, five rebounds and three assists.

The two leaders in plus-minus for Furman were Williams and Whitt, each at plus-18. After probably trying to do a little too much given the Paladins' injury situations of late, Whitt still played at his typical fast pace but seemed more in control than ever Wednesday. In addition to his 10 assists, Whitt also had five points on 2-of-5 shooting, four rebounds, a steal, a block and two turnovers.

"Confidence is a funny thing - up or down. I've been really proud of Carter's fight in the last year-and-a-half and it has not been an easy road for him," Richey said. "We infused him in that lineup last season and won 15-of-17 from that point forward. He came back this summer and his work ethic increased. He's in here every day, watching film, getting shots, popping in my office asking what he needs to get better at.

"I challenged Carter tonight to 'just go play to your strengths. You have elite vision and elite creativity with the ball. ... Take some pressure off yourself to make all these shots and just go play.' ... I looked at the boxscore during a couple of timeouts and he had no points and was at plus-20. He was affecting winning."

Furman will try to keep the momentum going when it hosts East Tennessee State Saturday at 2 p.m.

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