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)."

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