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."

No comments:

Post a Comment