Saturday, March 9, 2024

Paladins hope to regain championship form

Furman will try to win back-to-back Southern Conference Tournament
championships this weekend in Asheville. Photo courtesy of Furman

ASHEVILLE, N.C. - The Furman men's basketball team is experienced enough to know everything it takes to be successful at the Southern Conference Tournament. The Paladins arrived in Asheville this weekend with hopes of making the championship for a third consecutive season and becoming the first SoCon team to cut down the nets in back-to-back seasons since Wofford in 2015.

The fifth-seeded Paladins (16-15) are also smart enough to know one thing that absolutely won't work this weekend. That is any defensive effort like they gave in the final week of the regular season. Western Carolina and Mercer each shot better than 60 percent in their respective second halves to send Furman into the tourney on a two-game losing streak. The loss to the Bears last Saturday completed a season sweep for Mercer, which had lost each of the previous 18 games in the series. It also gave the Paladins two SoCon losses at Timmons Arena this season. Furman had lost only three SoCon games at home over the previous four seasons combined.

Losing two straight and three of your last four isn't an ideal way to enter your conference tournament, but it also doesn't automatically seal your fate. Furman is more battle-tested than any team in the SoCon. That hard schedule in November and December was designed to pay off in March. It's not like the Paladins are alone in how they closed out the regular season.

With the top seed secured, regular season champion Samford rested its three leading scorers in a loss at Wofford last Wednesday. The loss wasn't surprising given the circumstances, but the margin was. With three-and-a-half minutes left in the first half, the Bulldogs led the Terriers by one. With three-and-a-half minutes left in the second half, Wofford led by 39 and went on to a 91-69 win. Meanwhile, second-seeded UNC Greensboro and third-seeded Chattanooga each lost two of their last three. The only SoCon team that didn't lose over the final 10 days of the regular season was fourth-seeded Western Carolina, who will face Furman in Saturday's last quarterfinal at approximately 8:30 p.m. The Catamounts enter on a three-game winning streak.

"We talked about momentum going into Asheville all week and how important it is. We lost at Samford two years ago, then beat Citadel to get some momentum and the next thing you know we're in the championship. Last year we go win down at Samford to win the league (and then win the tournament)," Furman coach Bob Richey said following the Mercer loss. "Two years ago in the COVID year, we go to Wofford and lose at the buzzer on that offensive rebound and then we lose in the quarterfinal game.

"I'm not saying that if you lose today, you can't win in the tournament. It just gives you more that you've got to crawl through. You've got to work through it when you're not playing your best. You want to be feeling good about things this time of year. We've let two get away here back-to-back and you know, it's the same story."

The key is consistency. It's not like the Paladins have played bad defensively all season. There have been times this season where their defense has been excellent. Examples of that were displayed against one of the best offenses in the country in Samford.

The Bulldogs, who rank fourth nationally in scoring at 86.9 points per game, had their lowest scoring output in league play at Greenville Jan. 24. Furman snapped Samford's NCAA-best 17-game winning streak with a 78-68 victory that night. Only Purdue and Virginia Commonwealth, who were Samford's first two opponents, held the Bulldogs to fewer points this season. The Bulldogs were averaging more than 97 points per game at home when Furman visited Birmingham on Feb. 21. The Paladins led that game 72-67 with 40 seconds to play before Samford made a furious rally for a 74-72 win.

"We've won five in a row in this league at one point and four out of five in this league at another," Richey said. "We've had some very good defensive performances and a lot of the year we've been in the top three defensively. But we have to be consistent with it. It can't be selective. ... We're going to fight like heck to figure it out.

"My biggest hope for this team is now they know that it's the next game and if you lose it, you're done. That's where we are now. There's no like, 'hey, come back to practice.' You go out there with your back on the wall and you have to make a choice: How determined are we going to be?"  

The key to Furman's success during that five-game winning streak after starting 0-2 in SoCon play was finally having a fully healthy squad and every member of it contributing. The four out of five streak in February came about after Richey changed the starting lineup following Furman's loss at Mercer on Feb. 7.

Carter Whitt and Alex Williams have not been able to have the same kind of impact coming off the bench down the stretch. After making 5-of-8 three-pointers in a 21-point night at VMI on Jan. 17, Whitt is 0-for-14 from three since and played less than four minutes last Saturday. Whitt had 10 steals over three games of that five-game streak in January, but only six since. Williams has been working his way back into the mix following a three-game suspension for a violation of team rules. He's still third on the team in scoring averaging 13.8 points per game and still leads the team in three-point shooting at 40.7 percent, but hasn't scored more than six points since his return. If he can hit that scoring average and be that lethal outside threat this weekend, it would obviously be a huge boost for Furman.

In addition to defense, three-point shooting is also a key for the Paladins. Richey is still fully confident in his team's shooting ability, but it's been a struggle the last two games. One of Furman's sharpshooters, Marcus Foster, hit 1-of-10 threes at Western and made 1-of-8 against Mercer. It hasn't affected his overall game though as Foster recorded his fifth double-double of the season. Foster, who was named to the All-SoCon second team this week, is averaging 17.2 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.

While J.P. Pegues has hit clutch shots all season, he's been particularly dominant down the stretch. Following a perplexing four-point performance in the loss at Mercer, Pegues has averaged 23 points per game over the final seven games. After somehow being left off the All-SoCon team last season, Pegues was named to the first team this year after leading the Paladins in scoring (18 points per game) and assists (4.9 per game).

While Pegues has been pouring in points of late, he's also led the team in assists each of the last three games. That's not necessarily a good thing. This offense isn't built for someone to score 30-plus points and have half of the team's assists in the same game. It's designed to be more spread out through ball movement and playing connected.

Furman's offensive connection seems to coincide with its defensive connection and vice versa. The Paladins are 12-2 when having more assists than their opponents and 2-12 when having fewer. Furman is 11-0 when holding opponents to fewer than 70 points and 5-15 when allowing 70 or more.

The Paladins may push all the right buttons to get themselves right and that would certainly boost their chances, but it might still not be enough Saturday night. Even if its a modest three-game winning streak, Western Carolina is the hottest team going into the tournament.

The Catamounts are also led by the SoCon Player of the Year Vonterius Woolbright, who recorded his fourth triple-double this season in last Wednesday's win over Furman. That led to his record ninth SoCon Player of the Week honor. The last SoCon Player of the Year to lose in his team's opening game of the tournament was UNCG's Isaiah Miller in 2020. The league's top player has led his team to a tournament championship win four of the last five years, including Jalen Slawson last season.

Having a team full of guys who have been here and done this before, the Paladins still have hope. In the words of Andy Dufresne, 'Hope is a good thing.'

"It all resets in Asheville. In life, you're always looking for hope. Well, we've got hope. We've shown that we can play with anybody in this league in a lot of different games," Richey said. "But it takes a certain intensity, a certain defensive mindset and a certain connection on offense. That's all paramount to how we have to be successful. There's going to be no other way to get this done."

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