Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Second-half defense leads Paladins past Wofford

Ben VanderWal (4) blocks the shot of Wofford's Chase Cormier
during Furman's 82-67 win Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Playing Wofford at Timmons Arena for the first time since 2021 and for the last time until 2026, Furman enjoyed its biggest packed house of the season Saturday. The Paladins hosted the Terriers at the Bon Secours each of the last two years and will do so again next season while Timmons is being renovated. While those meetings at the Well were fantastic games in front of much bigger crowds, Saturday was a nice reminder of the electric home court advantage Furman has built over the past few seasons - especially in a rivalry game.

Among the 2,547 fans that produced Saturday's standing-room only sellout, the ones in purple and white had plenty to cheer about. J.P. Pegues and Marcus Foster scored 20 points apiece and the Paladins locked down defensively in the second half to post an 82-67 win. After the Terriers shot 51.7 percent in the first half, they were held to 35.7 percent (10-of-28) after halftime.

"There was a lot of offense in that first half and I thought it was going to come down to who could finally generate some stops. We had zero kills (three consecutive scoreless possessions for the opponent) in the first half and then got two or three in the second half. We had one early in the second half, which was big," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "Tyrese (Hughey) was defensive player of the game. That was big because they got 61 paint touches (in Furman's loss) in Spartanburg. We knew we had to do a better job there. ... Tyrese gave us some physicality down there, but it was a complete team effort.

"Thanks to our students. They showed up and showed out. I appreciate them filling that section up. ... When you continue to get consistent home crowds like that, it affects the energy. It's fun to be in that."

Furman (16-13, 10-6 Southern Conference) was coming off a heartbreaking, last-second loss at first-place Samford last Wednesday. In that game, Foster and PJay Smith combined to make just 3-of-16 three-pointers. One thing the Paladins have displayed this season is the ability to come back strong off of gut-punching losses. Foster and Smith displayed that ability when they confidently knocked down each of their first three-point attempts Saturday.

Foster made 5-of-11 threes, while Smith hit 4-of-6 in his 13-point performance. As a team, Furman made 12-of-33 threes, including 7-of-17 (41.2 percent) in the second half.

"I told Marcus after Samford, 'I don't care if you're 1-for-7 (on threes). That means you're about to go 3-for-4 (in the next game).' There's nothing more frustrating for me when I turn on the tape and I see really good shooters not taking great shots and really trying to overcomplicate the game," Richey said. "Those two guys (Foster and Smith) - and Pegues - are elite shooters. Those three are also perfectionists in a lot of ways. They want to see every single one of them go in. As a shooter, you've got to have an 0-for-0 mentality.

"I've got all the faith in the world in those three guys as shooters and I loved seeing Alex (Williams) hit that one at the top of the key. He's another great shooter. We tried to get those four on the court together a little bit more tonight. It's a cluster of a lineup we haven't played a lot, but just to get four shooters out there."

Another big factor in the loss at Samford was points off turnovers. While both teams committed 14 turnovers, the Bulldogs outscored the Paladins 23-10 off those. Furman remedied that Saturday by losing a season-low three turnovers, including none by its guards. Meanwhile the Paladins had 11 points off 12 turnovers, thanks in large part to nine steals. Four of those thefts were by Smith.

"This group's been growing so much. It was probably my worst ball security team for a lot of the year. ... It's funny when the ball starts moving more and you space correctly, you cut correctly and you depend on one another, you get a better quality look," Richey said. "When you get a better quality look your (shooting) percentage is going to go up and your ball security is going to go up."

In a first half where both teams shot 52 percent, it was a bit of a slow start. Furman trailed 12-7 five minutes in and the game was tied at 19 midway through the first half. Foster hit a jumper that started a 9-2 run over the next minute-and-a-half. Smith capped the flurry with a three to give the Paladins a 28-21 lead with 8:28 left in the first half.

Wofford (15-14, 8-8) regained the lead at 37-36 on a three-pointer by Chase Cormier with 2:24 left. Foster answered with a three, Pegues hit a jumper and Foster drew a foul on a three with 28 seconds left. Foster made all three free throws to give Furman a 44-39 lead at the half.

Foster hit back-to-back threes in the first two minutes of the first half as Furman took its first double-digit lead of the game. The Paladins led by as many as 16 with less than six minutes to play before Wofford went on a 7-0 run over a 63-second span to cut the lead to 71-62 with 4:08 remaining. Foster and Smith answered with back-to-back threes to push the lead right back to 15 with 3:10 left. That started an 11-2 run that stretched to 18 before the Terriers hit a three with 25 seconds left to close out the scoring. Wofford had missed six consecutive shots before that three.

"Defense wins these types of games. In the first half, we were a little sloppy, but we made the adjustment in the second half," Pegues said. "We made sure they weren't getting so many threes because they were getting really good looks and knocking them down in the first half. We knew we had to get back in defensive transition and once we did that and got them in the halfcourt, it kind of helped us."

In addition to his 20 points, Pegues had five rebounds, four assists and no turnovers, while Foster had eight rebounds in addition to his 20 points. Besides Smith's 13-point effort, Ben VanderWal was the other Paladin in double figures as he had 11 points, two blocks and two steals. After missing the previous three games due to a suspension for a violation of team rules, Williams played 11 minutes off the bench. Furman's third-leading scorer had an offensive putback immediately after checking in for the first time and later hit a three to finish with five points.

It would have been easy to make it a one-game suspension and have Williams return against second-place Chattanooga and certainly would've been easy to do for the game at first-place Samford. But that would kind of mock the whole point of the suspension.

"It's important in my job that I never forgot that I've got a responsibility for them. Instead of liking me at 20, I need them to love me at 30. He's going to look back on his life and he's going to thank me for what I've asked him to go through these past two weeks," Richey said of Williams. "I've asked him to understand in his heart what it means to be a player here. What it means to be a player here isn't about how many points you score or how many shots you get. For all the people that wore this jersey before him, that's not how this was built. It wasn't built on going and finding a bunch of scorers and a bunch of talent that we just threw out there. This has been sacrificial. This has been about the brotherhood and about building people.

"We love Alex. The reason we're asking him to do this is that we want him to be successful. I thought it was a good omen today that right when he got in the game, he got that offensive rebound. I've been begging him to get on the offensive glass. That's a sacrificial part of the game. ... A-Will's story is going to end up really well. He's got an unbelievable mother. He knows right from wrong. He's had to do some soul searching these last couple of weeks and I've seen him grow. These guys are kids. They're going to make mistakes and I've got to love them through it and help support them. ... I was really pleased with his effort today. He's going to have a big impact on this team over this stretch run, but this growth is going to pay off for him in the long term."

Next up for Furman is a trip to Western Carolina (20-9, 9-7) Wednesday for a 7 p.m. game that will be televised by ESPNU. Given the current SoCon standings with the Paladins in fourth place and the Catamounts in fifth, this same matchup might take place at the SoCon Tournament quarterfinals in Asheville 10 days later. Those seeds will all be sorted out this week as Furman wraps up the regular season by hosting Mercer at 2 p.m. Saturday.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Samford's late blitz thwarts Paladins' rally

J.P. Pegues scored 28 of his career-high 33 points in the second half, but
Furman lost at Samford, 74-72, Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

The Furman men's basketball team used the agony of a heartbreaking loss in the 2022 Southern Conference Tournament championship game to push itself to the 2023 SoCon title and its first NCAA Tournament win in nearly 50 years. That journey was captured by a film crew for the documentary "Better Together," which will be coming to Amazon Prime on March 6. An exclusive screening will be Monday at 6 p.m. at the Peace Center's Gunter Theatre. 

If the Paladins' current plan is to use every heartbreaking loss and other turmoil this regular season to go dancing again this March, they will not be lacking in ammunition when they head to Asheville in two weeks. Much like losses to Princeton, Tulane and UNC Greensboro earlier this season, Furman received another gut punch Wednesday at Samford. An amazing second-half performance by J.P. Pegues was spoiled when the Bulldogs went on a 7-0 run over the final 40 seconds to knock off the Paladins, 74-72.

"Give Samford credit. ... There's a reason those guys are undefeated in here. They made some huge plays," Furman coach Bob Richey said on the Furman Radio Network's postgame show. "We made some critical errors late, but man our team fought. I thought it was a heck of a fight for us to get down 10 and come back in the way we did.

"I thought we settled in in the second half and played with a lot more composure. We were a little keyed up in the first half and that environment got to us."

On a big night of basketball with the top six teams facing off against each other, this final game of the night undoubtedly had the attention of the rest of the SoCon. Those other teams were hoping for a Furman victory to pull first-place Samford closer to the pack. On Furman's last trip to Samford in last season's regular season finale, the game started with Mike Bothwell making basically every shot he fired up as the Paladins dominated from start to finish to earn a share of the SoCon regular season title and top seed for the SoCon Tournament.

This season's trip was the polar opposite start. While Furman (15-13. 9-6) missed each of its first nine three-pointers, Samford (24-4, 13-2) made four early to race out to a 14-4 lead. The Paladins trailed 30-21 late in the half before Garrett Hien hit a pair of free throws and Pegues drained a three at the buzzer to trim the deficit to four at the half.

That Pegues' three was a sign of things to come in the second half.

On a tough shooting night for Marcus Foster and PJay Smith, they hit back-to-back threes early in the second half to tie the game 32-32. Samford answered back though and later went on an 11-2 run to match its biggest lead of the night at 56-46 with 8:23 remaining. Furman answered back with a 9-0 run in less than two minutes thanks a Pegues' jumper, a Hien dunk, two free throws and a three by Pegues.

Furman trailed 60-55 with five minutes left when Pegues drilled three consecutive threes giving the Paladins their first lead of the night at 64-62 with 3:48 left. The Bulldogs' Jermaine Marshall answered with a layup and later a free throw before Pegues drew a foul on a three and knocked down all three foul shots to put Furman back in front, 67-65, with 2:25 left.

The game was tied at 67 when Pegues hit yet another three with 56 seconds left. On the other end, Pegues rebounded a Samford missed layup and was fouled. He hit both free throws to give Furman a 72-67 lead with 45 seconds left.

After making 10 three-pointers in the first half, the Bulldogs were just 4-of-16 from three in the second half before Jaden Campbell somehow got wide open and knocked one down with 39 seconds left to cut the lead to two. Smith had trouble inbounding against Samford's press and tried to throw it off Marshall. Instead, Marshall caught it, drew the foul and made both free throws to tie the game at 72 with 38 seconds left.

With two defenders hounding Pegues on the other end, his three-pointer from the right wing as the shot clock expired bounced off no good. You could tell from the angle of the miss that it could lead to a run out for Samford and that's exactly what happened. Marshall got the rebound and went coast-to-coast for the game-winning layup with 2.9 seconds left.

As soon as the ball went through the net, Ben VanderWal was in the middle of the Samford paint signaling for a timeout. No official stopped play to check the clock for how much time should be remaining or to honor the timeout. In a rush to try to beat the Bulldogs' press from getting set after the layup, Foster quickly inbounded the ball to Pegues who fired up a mid-court shot well before the buzzer. The prayer sailed away to the right as the horn sounded, Bucky ball snapped Furman's four-game winning streak in the series and improved to 16-0 at home this season.

"Three critical errors late that you obviously can't have happen with a five-point lead. ... We sub in Carter (Whitt) to get all guards out there and switch. We don't switch on one of their best shooters gets a three," Richey said. "Then we turn it over there. ... I thought for a second there we were going to be able to pull out a W, but there's a couple more things we can learn from this. We will get better from it."

Pegues finished with a career-high 33 points, including 28 in the second half, and six rebounds. The lone other Paladin in double figures was Hien, who had 10 points, six rebounds and five assists. Smith had eight points on 3-of-11 shooting, while Foster - who scored 22 points in Furman's win over Samford in Greenville - had five points on 1-of-7 shooting all of which were threes. Alex Williams, the Paladins' third-leading scorer this season, missed his third consecutive game due to suspension.

Rylan Jones had 17 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals to lead Samford, while Marshall had 15 points and eight rebounds.

As always, there's no time for moping for Furman. The Paladins return home Saturday to host rival Wofford for a "White Out" game at 2 p.m. It will be the Terriers' first game on Furman's campus since 2021. Wofford's last two trips to Greenville were for games at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Classic Furman defense returns in win over Mocs

J.P. Pegues drives to the basket against Chattanooga Sunday. Pegues
had 22 points in Furman's 82-65 win. Photo courtesy of Furman

It may have been purely coincidental that Furman played arguably its best game of the season Sunday after hearing from former Paladin Jalen Slawson in the team meeting that morning. Just to be sure, Furman may want to set up some kind of Zoom thing moving forward with Slawson back in California. The reigning Southern Conference Player of the Year is now a rookie with the Sacramento Kings. Slawson is averaging 12.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.8 blocks per game for the Kings' G League affiliate (Stockton, Calif.).

The NBA All-Star break gave Slawson a chance to come home to Charleston last weekend, before he headed to Timmons Arena Sunday. He received his 2023 SoCon Championship ring prior to the Paladins' game against Chattanooga. Following the ceremony, Furman looked like that same kind of defensive team that Slawson starred on the past few years.

The Paladins limited the Mocs to 33.9 percent shooting for the game, including 20.7 percent in the first half, to roll to an 82-65 win before a near-capacity crowd at Timmons Arena. Furman forced 13 turnovers and outscored UTC 19-11 in points off turnovers. It's the first time in four games that the Paladins outscored an opponent in points off turnovers as they had just 16 points off them over the last three games combined.

"My whole pregame was just, 'we have to go out there and we have to win this game on our connection.' I think it was the most connected we've looked all year. That first half was definitely our best half of basketball all year," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "We get to halftime and they tell me we've got 17 deflections and I about passed out. We used to get 30 (a game) all the time but this year, we've had (entire) games without 17. You can just feel that energy and freedom.

"We've been fighting like heck for it. I've never spent this much time as a team, harping on how important and vital it is. ... It's all been pouring into that whatever happens on that court, we're going to be a connected group." 

Furman's win sets up a big night of SoCon basketball Wednesday as the top six teams face off with two weeks remaining in the regular season. The fourth-place Paladins (15-12, 9-5) will try to complete the season sweep of first-place Samford (23-4, 12-2) at 7:30 p.m. Meanwhile, the two teams tied for second in the SoCon will face the two teams tied for fifth as UNCG (19-8, 10-4) hosts Western Carolina (19-8, 8-6) and Chattanooga (18-9, 10-4) hosts Wofford (15-12, 8-6).

Sunday's game was stunningly similar to what happened for the road and home teams during the first meeting in Chattanooga on Jan. 6. Playing without injured leading scorer Marcus Foster that day, the Paladins missed 16 consecutive shots in the first half. They made just 7-of-29 (21.4 percent) field goals before halftime that day, while the Mocs made 17-of-33 (51.5 percent). After taking a 43-20 lead into halftime, UTC went on to a 15-point win.

On Sunday, the Mocs missed each of their first 10 shots and was 6-of-29 (20.7 percent) from the floor for the first half. Meanwhile, Furman made 17-of-31 (54.8 percent) shots to take a 48-29 lead into halftime before going on to the 17-point win.

"Chattanooga's really, really good. We know that. (Coach) Dan (Earl) does a great job and they've got a ton of firepower," Richey said. "The way we defended that first half was pretty remarkable."

While Chattanooga got off to an 0-for-10 start before Myles Che hit a three-pointer with 13:41 left in the first half, Furman wasn't much better. The Paladins led 11-10 nine minutes in before the frontcourt started a 23-3 run over the next five-and-a-half minutes. After Cooper Bowser hit a pair of free throws, Carter Whitt rebounded a UTC miss and fired a long pass downcourt hitting Garrett Hien in stride for a dunk that electrified the crowd.

On Furman's next possession, Hien got a putback. On the one after that, Whitt made a dazzling bounce pass to a cutting Ben VanderWal. VanderWal's reverse layup made it 19-10 and forced a Mocs' timeout. Later, the Paladins made three consecutive threes - two by PJay Smith and one by J.P. Pegues - to push the lead to 30-13.

The Paladins took their biggest lead of the game with a minute left in the half when Foster's layup made it 48-24. The Mocs scored the final five points of the half thanks to a horrible technical foul call against Foster. Foster said it was the first technical he's ever had in his life.

UTC got the lead down to 11 nine minutes into the second half, but that's as close as it got. Foster and Tyrese Hughey hit back-to-back threes before Pegues made a layup and a three. Foster capped that flurry with another three as Furman regained command with at 73-51 with 6:18 left.

"I was super excited to play because I didn't get to against them the first time. That gave me a little bit of extra fuel and I was just really proud of our guys for coming in and displaying a great defensive effort to start the game," Foster said. "I'm just glad we all played well. It felt like a great team win. Everyone contributing makes it a classic Furman basketball game."

In addition to the deflections, the Paladins also outrebounded the Mocs 40-33. Furman posted a 30-16 advantage on points in the paint. Honor Huff scored a game-high 26 points to lead UTC. Mocs' leading scorer Trey Bonham was held to two points on 0-for-6 shooting before leaving after Furman's opening possession of the second half with an injury.

Furman was coming off a win over VMI in which it had 18 assists, but Pegues (8) and Whitt (7) accounted for all but three of those. Richey mentioned that he hoped the assists would be more spread out next time and that wish was granted. Furman had 20 assists Sunday - four by Whitt, three apiece by Pegues, Smith and VanderWal, and two apiece by Foster, Hien and Hughey.

"It's always better when it's more spread out because it just shows you the ball is moving everywhere," Richey said. "The go-to guy is the open guy and we're seeking the open guy. ... I thought we had a lot of really good possessions like that tonight."

Pegues had 22 points, five rebounds and no turnovers to lead the Paladins. Foster had 15 points and six rebounds, while Smith scored 11. After playing his way into the starting lineup, VanderWal finished with nine points and seven rebounds.

"He's (VanderWal) earned it. He's at plus-27 tonight and J.P. is at plus-31. Those two were sitting together here at the women's game on Thursday night. It's funny how that works," Richey said. "Ben's a warrior. He just cares about all the things we've discussed here (ball movement, defense, etc.).

"I told our staff after the game that I'd love to know our record when we play him 20 minutes or more. That may end up making me look like an idiot to be honest with you, but I want to see it. Maybe my gut is wrong but I think when he's out there, things that affect winning take place. You don't always know what that is, but it's just those plays where he lays it on the line."

Now Furman turns its attention to Samford. The Paladins, who snapped the Bulldogs' NCAA-best 17-game winning streak with a 78-68 win in Greenville on Jan. 24, will try to be the first team to win on the Bulldogs' home floor since they did in last year's regular season finale.

"It's going to be a great environment. They're going to have a great crowd and (Coach) Bucky (McMillan) does a really good job. We're excited about the opportunity and challenge. I think it's going to continue to show the quality of our league," Richey said. "We got four games left in the regular season. We're going to take them one at a time and just continue to try to get to us."

Sunday, February 18, 2024

VanderWal helps Furman find a new path to win

Furman's Ben VanderWal dunks on VMI 6-foot-9 center D.J. Nussbaum
during the Paladins' 75-62 win Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

When Furman was trailing at ETSU midway through the second half last Saturday, Coach Bob Richey was faced with a defensive dilemma. The Paladins weren't turning the Bucs over and allowing too many easy shots and putbacks in the paint. With the thought of "if we can't do one, then let's at least try the other" in mind, Richey inserted Cooper Bowser into the lineup and the freshman big man sparked a comeback victory.

Back home on Wednesday night, Furman was facing a vastly different offense in VMI but still wasn't generating turnovers. Deflections leading to turnovers leading to transition offense has been the arguably the biggest staple of the Paladins' success over the past nine years. But if it's broke, you've got to fix it and on Wednesday, they dug into Ben VanderWal's toolbox to find the solution. VanderWal had a career-high 15 points and a career-high 13 rebounds off the bench to lead Furman to a 75-62 win.

VanderWal had eight of those points and 10 of those rebounds - including all five of his offensive rebounds - in the second half as the Paladins (14-12, 8-5 Southern Conference) used a 21-1 run over a five-and-a-half minute stretch to take break free from a tie and take command. After getting outrebounded 21-20 and getting outscored 8-0 on second-chance points in the first half, Furman finished with a 51-39 rebounding advantage and a 14-10 edge in second-chance points for the game. That helped offset a 19-6 advantage the Keydets had in points off turnovers, as they committed just six.

"I'm proud of our group, specifically in our second half performance. I thought we played a complimentary game," Richey said. "In that 21-1 run, we just played the right way. We were getting stops, finally started keeping the ball out of the paint, limited second-chance points and started getting second-chance points.

"The first half wasn't all bad. We were up five, but we were minus-13 on second chance and points off turnovers. It was a similar story to Saturday in Johnson City in giving ourselves a deficit and not crashing the glass."

Earlier this season, Furman (14-12, 8-5 Southern Conference) forced just seven turnovers at VMI but it didn't matter that night as the Paladins shot the lights out in a 100-60 win. That wasn't the case on Wednesday. At times, it appeared that both teams were shooting with the lights off. After taking a 39-34 lead into halftime, Furman made two of its first 10 shots of the second half, allowing the Keydets to come back and tie the game 46-46 with 14 minutes left.

Back-to-back three-pointers by J.P. Pegues roused the Paladins from their slumber. After a VMI free throw cut the lead to 52-47, Furman scored 15 consecutive points in less than four minutes. Garrett Hien's layup following an offensive rebound by VanderWal capped the 21-1 run to give Furman a 67-47 lead with 8:29 left. VMI (4-22, 1-12) never got the lead under 11 the rest of the way.

"That was one of Ben's best games since he's been here. ... Ben just plays the game the right way," Richey said. "He's willing to do all of what people think are small things, but really, there's no small things in this game. ... He's just a willing cutter and he goes to every single backboard, whether it be on the offensive or defensive glass."

While not nearly as impressive as their showing at VMI, the Paladins found a way to win without third-leading scorer Alex Williams. Williams was suspended for Wednesday's game for a violation of team rules. As to when Williams might be available to return, Richey said it's "day-to-day."

"It's a situation he and I are working through. ... I love Alex. He made a mistake and he's owned it. Our plan is to move forward and for him to be a big part of this," Richey said. "I think he's shown a lot of growth in his time here and and trust that he's going to continue to grow. I'm sure he missed being out there tonight and I look forward to hopefully getting him back out there sooner rather than later."

Pegues finished with 14 points and eight assists, while Marcus Foster added 13 points and seven rebounds. Hien had nine points and seven rebounds, and Carter Whitt had eight points, seven assists and four rebounds off the bench. While Furman was guilty of 14 turnovers, the big man trio of Hien, Bowser and Tyrese Hughey combined for zero.

Coming off an obviously emotional week for the Furman community and a thrilling last-second, comeback win at ETSU, combined with facing a team it beat by 40 points last month and being one man down, perhaps the Paladins went through the motions of trying to get back to some normalcy Wednesday. You really can't go through the motions against anyone in the SoCon and expect to win.

"I definitely think we grew as the night went along. We started off a bit slow to our standards. For us two (Foster and Pegues) as leaders, we've got to make sure the guys are not just looking at the opponent. Whoever the opponent is, we've got to come out and play to our standard," Foster said. "Ben just makes winning plays. He's a sparkplug for us because he's always going to do the dirty work. ... He's doing a great job and he's going to have a great career here."

Having Williams available Sunday certainly would be a boost for Furman as the Paladins host Chattanooga at 2 p.m. The game will be televised by CBS Sports Network. The Mocs (18-8, 10-3), who are currently in second place in the SoCon standings, defeated Furman, 73-58, in the Scenic City on Jan. 6. That was part of a nine-game stretch that the Paladins were missing Foster, their leading scorer, due to a knee injury.

It will be interesting to see what kind of defensive adjustments unfold for Furman Sunday. The Paladins actually forced 17 turnovers at UTC, but it didn't matter because Furman was colder than a banker's heart. The Paladins shot just 27.5 percent from the floor, including 4-of-33 from three. Furman missed 16 consecutive shots over a 13-and-a-half minute stretch in the first half as Chattanooga took a 43-20 lead into halftime and cruised to the win.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Paladins rally for emotional win at ETSU

Furman dedicated Saturday's win at ETSU to the memory of football
player (No. 97) Bryce Stanfield. Photo courtesy of Furman

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. - Nothing can take away the pain endured by the entire Furman community following the tragic death of rising senior football player Bryce Stanfield on Friday. The men's basketball team was able to provide a bit of a respite Saturday night though, in thrilling fashion. The Paladins rallied from an 11-point deficit with less than seven minutes to play and J.P. Pegues came up huge again in the final seconds as Furman defeated East Tennessee State, 65-63, at Freedom Hall.

Furman was coming off one of its poorest efforts this season in a rough loss at Mercer on Wednesday night. Earlier that day, Stanfield was attending a morning workout as the football team was preparing to open spring practice. Stanfield collapsed and was rushed to the hospital where he remained in critical condition until he passed away. Ever since the news broke on Wednesday, Furman received tons of support from those outside the school including fellow Southern Conference members. That continued prior to Saturday's game when ETSU held a moment of silence for Stanfield prior to the national anthem.

"The Furman family has had heavy hearts this week. That one tonight was for No. 97 (Stanfield's number), his family and the football team," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "Our school needed that win. Our program needed it and just the way it happened. To get in the hole we got into and fight until the bitter end. We had to just scrap and claw, and be thankful for the opportunity to compete."

After making just 12 of its first 35 field goals for the game, Furman (13-12, 7-5) hit 12 consecutive shots over the final 13 minutes. With the game tied 63-63 in the final seconds, Pegues once again delivered the game-winner albeit in a much different fashion than normal. He drove to the right baseline, pulled up, pump-faked his defender into the air and then went up for a jumper that didn't fall but he drew the foul with 1.8 seconds left. Pegues calmly drained both free throws to lift the Paladins to an emotional victory.

"I thought he (the defender) might bite on this one because I usually go straight up and he fell for it. I would rather make the (game-winning) jumper, but I'll take anything in that moment," Pegues said. "Credit to their guys. They played super hard, but we found a way."

Ben VanderWal's jumper with 12:56 started that run of 12 consecutive made baskets. Carter Whitt's layup on the Paladins' next possession cut the ETSU lead to three. But just three made Furman baskets later, the Bucs lead soared to 11 as they put together a quick string of seven consecutive made shots. That's when Richey turned to freshman big man Cooper Bowser to try to stop Furman's defensive bleeding.

Bowser, who had played a total of 43 minutes since Jan. 7, came on Saturday with 7:49 remaining and never headed back to the bench. When Bowser came on, ETSU big man Jadyn Parker had 12 points, nine rebounds and five blocks. Parker had one point, no rebounds and no blocks the rest of the way. Furman outrebounded the Bucs 9-2 over that time frame.

"To be honest with you, we weren't scoring and at that point I thought, 'well, let's at least protect the rim.' We put him in there in the paint to try to clog the rim up a little bit," Richey said. "It's one of those decisions that you don't know how it's going to go until you make it, but he continues to grow and mature. He grew up another step tonight."

The Paladins trailed 59-51 before Marcus Foster drilled a three-pointer with 4:17 left. Foster drove and hit a floater on the next possession to cut the lead to three. After ETSU's Ebby Asamoah answered with a jumper, Furman called timeout with 3:04 left. Coming out of the timeout, Bowser found Pegues for a three. After a missed three for the Bucs, Pegues grabbed the rebound and dribbled all the way down before lobbing an alley-oop to Bowser for the game-tying dunk with 2:12 left.

Bowser got the rebound on ETSU's next possession giving Furman a chance to take the lead. Pegues' jumper didn't fall though, snapping that run of 12 straight makes. Tyrese Hughey grabbed the offensive rebound and Pegues drew a foul, but it was only the Bucs' sixth. On the inbounds under Furman's basket, Pegues lobbed a pass that Hughey had no idea was intended for him. The ball sailed over everybody's head except ETSU's Jaden Seymour who caught it and slammed it home on the other end to put the Bucs in front 63-61 with 1:03 left.

Furman and Pegues didn't flinch under the stress of what could've been a backbreaking turnover as he drew a foul on a three-pointer with 43 seconds left. After missing the first shot, the SoCon's No. 1-ranked free throw shooter sank the next two to tie the game at 63-63. On the other end, Foster played incredible defense as Seymour tried to twist and turn his way for a clean look. Seymour never got it. His shot hit all backboard, no rim and deflected off of ETSU out of bounds. After a long video review, the ball remained with Furman setting the stage for Pegues' game-winning free throws.

"(Foster's) play was the biggest defensive play of the game. Seymour tried to get him off his feet probably four or five times. Marcus just did a great job of staying down, sticking to his discipline and walling up," Richey said. "J.P. is just a gamer and he's got the clutch gene. He loves those moments and I wasn't going to have the ball in anybody else's hands."

Pegues finished with a game-high 15 points and also had five rebounds, four assists and two steals. Foster had 11 points, eight rebounds and two steals. The Paladins found a way to win with only two fast break points and two points off turnovers as ETSU (13-12, 5-7) finished with eight turnovers. Four of those turnovers for the Bucs came in the first four minutes of the game. Their only turnover in the second half came when their long inbounds pass with 1.8 seconds left sailed out of bounds.

Quimari Peterson led five ETSU players in double figures with 14 points.

Furman returns to action Wednesday when it hosts VMI at 7 p.m.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Mercer snaps Furman's 18-game series win streak

Tyrese Hughey had 10 points in Furman's 78-69 loss
at Mercer Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

The law of averages likely caught up with the Furman basketball team on its trip to Mercer Wednesday. More than anything, the law of poor play in the second half caught up with it. The Paladins shot 34.6 from the floor after halftime while allowing the Bears to shoot 56.7 percent as Furman lost, 78-69. The loss snaps the Paladins' 18-game winning streak in the series against Mercer. It mark Bob Richey's first loss to Mercer as a head coach as the Bears' previous last win in the series came on Jan. 14, 2016.

The loss also was the second in a row for Furman (12-12, 6-5 Southern Conference). In both games, the Paladins saw a halftime lead disappear thanks to a drop-off in the second half. In Sunday's classic 89-87 loss to UNC Greensboro, Furman scored 51 in the first half and 36 in the second. On Wednesday, the Paladins followed up a 40-point first half with a 29-point second half. While Richey was disappointed but not angered by the loss to UNCG in what was a classic, his postgame tone was different Wednesday in Macon, Ga.

"I'm not doing a very good job with this group right now and I've got to figure it out," Richey said on the Furman Radio Network's postgame show. "We didn't look like a team tonight. We didn't look connected. We didn't look like we had any desire to play defense. ... It was a very bad performance and a very uninspiring effort. It was a very poor defensive and rebounding effort. We've got to get it fixed."

The night started on a solid note. Marcus Foster entered needing seven points to become the 51st player in school history to score 1,000 career points and he checked that box quickly. After Tyrese Hughey scored Furman's first five points, Foster scored the next nine to stake the Paladins to a 14-7 lead six minutes in.

With Furman seemingly in control, Mercer's Jalyn McCreary began to take over and never really stopped. McCreary, who opened the game with a steal and a dunk, scored the Bears' next 12 points after they trailed 14-7. The last of those came on a dunk with 8:45 left that cut Furman's lead to 23-17. An Alex Williams' three-pointer with 13 seconds left gave the Paladins an eight-point lead, but Mercer was able to go the length of the court in six seconds before Robby Carmody's layup cut the lead to 40-34 at the half.

Carmody, a backup guard, had scored 11 points combined over his previous five games. The Notre Dame transfer only scored five Wednesday, but that layup was a sign of things to come and things that had already been seen as Furman was destroyed down low all night.

"Even with a lead at half, we could still sense it. We had a really low pass count at halftime. The ball wasn't moving," Richey said. "We had five assists and six turnovers (in the first half). We tried to talk about it at the half, but unfortunately it got worse."

Based on the series history and SoCon standings, things still seemed to be going as planned early in the second half. The Paladins made four of their first six shots to take a 50-41 lead just over three minutes into the second half, but then everything went downhill. After J.P. Pegues' first made field goal - a layup with 16:47 left, Furman hit just 5-of-20 shots the rest of the way.

Mercer took advantage as it went on a 13-1 run before the Paladins' next made field goal - a Williams' layup with 12:34 left. Foster followed with a layup on Furman's next possession as the Paladins regained the lead at 55-54 with 11:56 left. That lead lasted all of 29 seconds when McCreary buried a jumper and Mercer (11-13, 4-7) never relinquished the lead.

Over the final 11:55 of the game, the Paladins made 3-of-9 field goals and had eight turnovers. While Mercer made just 2-of-9 three-pointers, Furman hit just 6-of-22. The Bears had a 48-32 advantage on points in the paint.

A sign of just how odd this game got came in Furman's foul trouble. With 8:02 remaining, the Paladins had been called for just nine fouls but Pegues and Hughey accounted for eight of those with four apiece. Pegues' fourth foul came with 10:30 left. That certainly didn't help Furman's attempt to come back down the stretch.

"At the end of the day, we're not playing well and that's on me," Richey said. "I promise you that we're going to fight and scrap and get this thing worked out, but tonight was unacceptable. ... It was a pathetic, pitiful performance."

Foster finished with 19 points, nine rebounds and three steals to lead Furman. Williams had 15 points, while Hughey had 10 points and two blocked shots before fouling out. Pegues was held to four points on just 2-of-5 shooting and also had five assists, four rebounds and four turnovers along with the four fouls.

McCreary made 13-of-21 shots and finished with a game-high 28 points to go along with eight rebounds, a block and a steal.

Furman will try to get things back on track when it plays at East Tennessee State Saturday at 6 p.m. The game will be televised by CBS Sports Network.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Furman falls short in classic against UNCG

Marcus Foster had 26 points and six rebounds in Furman's 89-87
loss to UNC Greensboro Sunday. Photo courtesy of Furman

By the first media timeout less than five minutes into Furman's game against UNC Greensboro Sunday at Timmons Arena, two things were pretty evident. First, The Southern Conference could not have asked for a better national showcase for a game that was televised by ESPNU. Second, whoever came out on the losing end would likely do so in heartbreaking fashion.

Both of thoughts came to fruition. By that first media timeout, the Paladins led 16-15 and there were three lead changes and one tie. By the end of the game, there were 18 lead changes and nine ties. At the end, a Furman team that had made each of its first 21 free throws missed each of its last three, and J.P. Pegues finally proved to be human in the final seconds as UNCG prevailed, 89-87.

"That was an unbelievable college basketball game. The national TV audience got a treat as did every fan in this building. Unfortunately, we fell one play short. Credit UNCG for its performance," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "It was two really good teams playing each other. ... We will look at this and find ways to improve. ... This group has grown a ton, but there's a lot of growth that we can still have."

Furman trailed 87-81 with 2:28 left after the Spartans' Keyshaun Langley drilled his sixth three-pointer giving him 30 points. Pegues answered with a three, which was followed by a Carter Whitt steal. Whitt found Pegues who drained another three with 1:29 left to tie the game 87-87. On its ensuing possession, UNCG (17-6, 8-2) masterfully ran out all the shot clock before Jalen Breath's reverse layup put the Spartans ahead with 59 seconds left.

Coming out of a timeout, the Paladins came up with a great play. With Pegues getting plenty of attention on the perimeter, Garrett Hien made a terrific backdoor bounce pass to a cutting Pegues. His reverse layup rolled agonizingly along the rim and off though. After the Spartans missed on their end, Marcus Foster grabbed the rebound with 15 seconds left.

Furman quickly got up the court and the ball got to Pegues. After hitting so many clutch three-pointers in the final seconds this season and last March, Pegues could not get this one to fall with six seconds left. Whitt got a hand on the loose ball and hit it off the backboard before he got the rebound. Whitt's short jumper missed but Marcus Foster grabbed the rebound. While his putback didn't go in, Foster drew his 11th foul of the game just before the final horn sounded. After review, Foster headed to the foul line with 0.6 seconds left to play. 

Foster, who was 10-for-11 at the foul line at that point, had his first shot hit the back of the rim and bounced off no good. Having to intentionally miss the second free throw in hopes of a game-tying tip-in, Foster's high-arcing shot rattled in-and-out but the Paladins couldn't get the loose ball as time expired. Foster finished with 26 points on just nine field goal attempts and also had a game-high six rebounds and three assists.

"I thought our kids played their hearts out and I'm sick for Marcus. There's nothing more I wanted for him than to see those two free throws go in and put the game into overtime," Richey said. "I hate that he has to deal with that. I hate that J.P. has to deal with missing that back-cut layup. Those two kids did everything they could to help us try to win the game today."

In the first half, there were 15 lead changes and five ties in one of the most entertaining 20 minutes of basketball this season. Each team was 16-of-27 from the floor in the first half and UNCG made 9-of-14 (64.3 percent) three-pointers and all six of its free throws. Furman hit 6-of-13 threes and was 13-for-13 at the foul line to take a 51-47 lead into the break. Entering Sunday, the Spartans led the SoCon in scoring defense allowing just 69 points per game.

"You could think (in the first half) 'well maybe neither team was guarding,' but I think it was a little bit opposite," Richey said. "I think you just had a lot of really good players on the floor and a lot of guys making plays."

Furman maintained the lead for the first seven minutes of the first half, but never by more than six as the teams continued to battle back-and-forth. With 13:19 left, UNCG's Donovan Atwell converted a four-point play to cut the lead to one. On the Spartans' next possession, Langley's jumper gave UNCG a 64-63 lead.

Over the next six minutes, that back-and-forth balance went away as Furman went four minutes without a field goal as the Spartans stretched their lead to 10 with 6:30 left. PJay Smith and Foster hit threes around a pair of Pegues' free throws to cut the lead to 80-78 with 4:54 left. Langley's brother, Kobe, hit a long two-pointer. After a putback by Tyrese Hughey, Kobe Langley then got a runner to fall with Foster draped all over him. Keyshaun Langley's three with 2:28 pushed the lead to 87-81 before the final wild two minutes.

"We did battle back in the end, but we needed to execute a little bit better on the defensive end and get a couple of more stops," said Pegues, who finished with 25 points and four assists. "On the other end, some nights they just don't go in. My missed layup was wide open. It just rolled out.

"Then I had that other shot for three, but I don't really take those just because I think I'm going to make them. I take them because I'm okay with missing them. I can live with that (shot) result. ... We didn't really play the way we wanted to and for us to lose a one-possession game, I still see a bright future for us."

It's hard to imagine how UNCG could've had a better game offensively. The Spartans shot 53.7 percent for the game, including 59.1 percent (13-of-22) on three-pointers, and made 18-of-19 free throws (94.7 percent). In addition to Keyshaun Langley's 30-point effort, UNCG big man Mikeal Brown-Jones was nearly just as big of a problem. By the midpoint of the second half, Hughey and Hien had already drawn four fouls trying to guard Brown-Jones, who finished with 19 points and two blocked shots.

While it was a heartbreaking loss, Furman has had plenty of experience rebounding from those this year. Conference play doesn't allow much time for gloom anyway as Furman will hit the road to take on Mercer (10-13, 3-7) at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

"Mercer went to Greensboro and won this season. ... It doesn't matter if it's Mercer, if it's Citadel or if it's VMI, you'd better be prepared to play your best every single night," Richey said. "We've lost some gut-wrenching games this season, but our effort, our fight and resiliency was right tonight. I'll be able to sleep well tonight even though that doesn't mean I'm satisfied or happy. We're not going to mope around. It's Sunday, so there's no day off. We've got to go right back to work (Monday)."

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Pegues, Foster help Paladins rally past Citadel

J.P. Pegues hit another clutch three-pointer in the final second of regulation during
Furman's 82-79 overtime win at The Citadel Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Wednesday night in Charleston, J.P. Pegues did that thing he's become known for and Marcus Foster did that thing he's becoming known for. Pegues hit another clutch three in the final second of regulation to force overtime and Foster had another double-double to help Furman rally for a fairly amazing 82-79 win at The Citadel.

Pegues has followed up his heroic game-winning three-pointer over Virginia in the opening round of last year's NCAA Tournament, by hitting three similar threes this season. Wednesday's was the first that didn't give Furman the lead, but it tied the game at 72-72. That didn't seem like a very likely proposition when the Paladins (12-10, 6-3 Southern Conference) trailed by 18 late in the first half. Foster who had three double-doubles in his career entering this season, had his fourth in five games since returning from a knee injury. He just missed a triple-double as he finished with 17 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists.

"There's a lot of guys we're proud of, but Marcus, good grief. There's not much more I could ask him to do tonight. He drew seven of their 13 fouls. I thought he played an exceptional game with his effort," Furman coach Bob Richey said on the Furman Radio Network's postgame show. "I was proud of J.P. too because I thought he just stuck in there. I asked him to play more aggressive tonight. I thought he was aggressive early, but he wasn't seeing the ball go in. I was glad that he stayed with it and obviously hit the huge shot to put us into OT."

"We led for three minutes and 48 seconds tonight, but sometimes that's how you have to win. Especially on the road when you get into the kind of environment we ran into tonight."

The kind of environment Furman ran into was none like these group of Paladins have ever seen at Citadel. Any Furman fan who's made that trip in the last few years know that finding a seat at McAlister Field House has never been an issue. Given that the Bulldogs are in last place in the SoCon, one would've expected that to remain the case on Wednesday. Instead it was a packed house of with more seats brought out that are usually not available because of no need.

It also faced a fired-up Citadel squad that showed no fear against a Furman team it lost by 14 to earlier this season in Greenville. After taking more than eight minutes to make their second field goal in a loss at Wofford the last time out, the Paladins got off to a similarly lousy start Wednesday as their second field goal was made at the 14:20 mark.

"I've been in games here since 2006 when I was an assistant at Charleston Southern. I've never seen anything like this tonight. This thing was wall-to-wall. They must have made the whole school come out here," Richey said. "That's the best crowd I've ever seen here and I thought it kind of rattled us at first. Moreso than us being startled was that they (the Bulldogs' team) really fed off the energy of it."

The Bulldogs (9-13, 1-8) fed off that energy after what was also a slow start for them before Elijah Morgan got cooking. The game was tied 14-14 midway through the first half before a three-pointer by Morgan started a nine-minute stretch in which Citadel outscored Furman by 18 points. Another Morgan three gave the Bulldogs a 42-24 lead with 1:14 left in the first half. That also gave Morgan 22 points in the first half.

Furman closed out the half with just its second and third made three-pointers to that point. Those threes by Alex Williams and Pegues cut the lead to 42-30 at the break.

"Fortunately, we got those back-to-back threes. Besides J.P.'s shot, Marcus' offensive rebounds and some other second-half plays, those were probably the two biggest plays of the game," Richey said. "In the second half, we really settled in defensively. After 22 in the first half, we held Morgan to two over the next 25 minutes and I thought that was the big difference in the game."

Citadel got the lead back to 15 two minutes into the second half. PJay Smith drilled a three-pointer that started a 13-4 run for Furman over the next three minutes. It was still a six-point Citadel lead when Smith hit another three with 11:27 left to slice the lead to 54-51. Three minutes later, another Smith three tied the game at 56-56. On the Paladins' next possession, Foster found Carter Whitt for a layup giving Furman its first lead since early in the first half.

Foster's three with 4:09 left gave Furman a 67-64 lead, but the Bulldogs responded with an 8-2 run to take a 72-69 lead with 1:32 left. At that point, Foster, Smith and Pegues all missed three-pointers. Meanwhile, Citadel missed a three and the front end of a pair of one-and-one free throws. That last one with eight seconds left, opened the pay phone door for Pegues to change into his Superman suit one more time.

Williams rebounded the free throw and flipped the ball to Pegues, who dribbled all the way down and pulled up from that same spot to the right of the top of the key for the game-tying three with 0.1 seconds left. After reviewing it, officials put the clock at 0.8 seconds left - just like after every other one this season. The Bulldogs could not get a shot off taking the game to overtime.

Citadel actually hit a pair of free throws to take the lead in overtime, but another Smith three with 2:48 left gave Furman a lead it never relinquished. Foster's three-point play off a putback with 1:57 left pushed the Paladins lead to five to help seal the win.

"I kept thinking they were going to go foul (Pegues in regulation) but they didn't. They let him get it off and he hit it," Richey said. "This is one we're going to look back on. Yes, we can turn games, turn our energy and do it on the road. I really think we will feed off this as we go into the stretch of the season."

Pegues finished with 16 points, four assists, four rebounds and two steals. Foster and Pegues played 40 and 41 minutes respectively, and had just one turnover apiece. Smith finished with 15 points off the bench and Williams scored 12.

Morgan and A.J. Smith led Citadel with 24 points apiece. Smith also had team-highs in rebounds (eight) and assists (five). They also each played 40-plus minutes with one turnover apiece.

Furman returns to action at home Sunday, hosting UNC Greensboro at 2 p.m. The game will be televised by ESPNU.