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.

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