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.

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