Sunday, March 10, 2024

Paladins oust Catamounts in another classic

Furman's PJay Smith knocks the ball away from Western Carolina's Russell Jones as the final seconds
expire in the Paladins' 79-76 win at the SoCon Tournament Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

ASHEVILLE, N.C. - Much like The Godfather and The Terminator, somehow the sequel was even better than the amazing original. After a thrilling overtime battle in the Southern Conference Tournament semifinals last season, Furman and Western Carolina put on another overtime classic in the SoCon Tournament quarterfinals Saturday.

Once again, the Paladins found a way to advance. Unlike last year when Furman had to battle back after blowing an 18-point second half lead, the Paladins had to withstand a blistering shooting start by the Catamounts Saturday. Furman trailed by as many as 12 in the first half before rallying for the 79-76 overtime win. The fifth-seeded Paladins (17-15) advance to face top-seeded Samford in Sunday's semifinals at 4 p.m.

"What an unbelievable college basketball game. I've been trying to tell everybody how good this league is. I just don't think people understand it. I don't think they've understood it for years. But the high quality of basketball, you saw it on display from noon to tonight," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "Give (Western Carolina coach) Justin (Gray) a lot of credit. I've got a lot of respect for Justin and we've had some classics with them."

There were tons of storylines Saturday, but none bigger than the job Furman's defense did on SoCon Player of the Year Vonterius Woolbright and the turnaround it pulled off. With four minutes left in the first half, Western held a 40-28 lead and was shooting 72.7 percent from the floor. They were shooting like that with no points from Woolbright. He had seven assists and five missed shots before making his first with 52 seconds left in the half. That was the Catamounts' final points of the half as they took a 42-40 lead into the break.

It was like Western picked up where they left off in last Wednesday's home win over Furman when it shot over 60 percent in the second half and scored 55 points that half. But after that four-minute mark left in the first half in which the Catamounts were 16-of-22 from the floor - including 8-of-13 on three-pointers, they made just 15-of-40 (37.5 percent) shots the rest of the way - including 0-for-6 on threes.

"We knew coming into the game that we were going to have to do a much better job on Woolbright. ... Give our team a lot of credit. To have a player that good score 11 points on 14 shots and turn him over six times, that's why we were able to win the game," Richey said. "We were able to survive an incredible shooting display by (Kamar) Robertson and (Tre) Jackson to start the game. It felt like they were hitting everything, but our players kept fighting.

"I couldn't be more proud of our team. Every single person that played did something to help us win. That's the power of the unit. That's how Furman won and that's how we will always win. ... When this team guards we can beat a lot of people. Once we got transition defense shored up after the first five minutes of the game and once we did a much better job guarding their shooters, you saw an unbelievable defensive effort that allowed us to get a classic victory."

The other major storylines Saturday were redemption and classic Furman "team" basketball. Those two things went hand in hand.

J.P. Pegues was his typical phenomenal self with a game-high 28 points thanks in part to making 6-of-11 three-pointers. Dating back to his game-winning three against Virginia in last year's NCAA Tournament, Pegues' reputation for making clutch shots has only grown as he has added more throughout this season.

Western knows fully well about Pegues exploits in the final seconds and were defending him as such. So Pegues relied on his teammates in those final moments on Saturday. It's a pretty safe bet that nobody had who those teammates would be on their bingo card. The game was tied at 67 with 38 seconds left in regulation when Pegues found Garrett Hien for a go-ahead layup and a foul.

Hien missed the free throw and Woolbright drove all the way to the bucket and hit a layup with his non-shooting hand to tie the game at 69-69 with 29 seconds left. After calling timeout with 17 seconds left, Carter Whitt replaced Hien as the Paladins went with a small lineup. As Furman played for the final shot, Pegues for Whitt for a layup that he couldn't get to fall and overtime commenced.

Essentially the same scenario came about in overtime. After Pegues hit a three, the Paladins led 74-71 with three minutes left. Woolbright answered back getting a circus shot to foul while drawing Hien's fifth foul. Woolbright made the free throw to tie the game with 2:47 left. Once again, Whitt came in after Hien fouled out.

Marcus Foster and Woolbright exchanged layups to leave the game tied 76-76 with less than a minute to play. Foster got the ball down low and drew a double team, so he fired to Pegues on the perimeter. Once again, Pegues quickly drew a double team as well and once again, he fired a pass to Whitt for a layup. Whitt came through this time with what turned out to be the game-winner with 47 seconds left.

"That's just the trust and confidence that we have in each other," Pegues said. "Like coach said, there were some plays like on the pass to Garrett Hien where I could've shot it, but I trust him so much I can live with the results with the ball in his hands at a time like that. I feel like that confidence that instills in him helps our team overall."

After Russell Jones missed a layup on the other end, Whitt came away with the rebound. Alex Williams got caught in a trap before midcourt and despite Richey signaling for a timeout with 21 on the shot clock, it got to 20 and Furman turned it over on the 10-second violation. Undaunted, Williams brilliantly defended Woolbright who couldn't get his layup to fall and Foster grabbed the rebound. After Foster hit 1-of-2 free throws, the Catamounts had one more chance trailing 79-76 with 13 seconds left.

Jones' three-pointer from the top of the key missed to the left and went off Foster, who tapped it towards Whitt. Whitt tapped it forward and PJay Smith hit the deck to tap it further away from Western's bucket. Just after the ball crossed midcourt, Williams finally corralled the rebound and glided towards Furman's basket as the final clock expired.

"I thought we had as good a practice on Wednesday and Thursday as we've had in this calendar year. Probably going back to October actually. I challenged our team coming off that Mercer game, but we didn't watch any of it. We just moved on because we know why we didn't win that game," Richey said. "We didn't play good second half defense in Cullowhee or in Greenville (against Mercer in the last week of the regular season). We gave up 103 points in two second halves. Tonight we give up 27 in the second half. It's a choice and that's life. You've got to make to the decision to do hard things and tonight we did that.

"We got the boxscore (at the under-four timeout in the first half). I told them 'they're shooting over 70 percent and you're only down nine. We can shut this thing down or we can go out there and get this defense better.' And PJay Smith's defense from that timeout forward was incredible. They didn't make a three-pointer from that point on. That was the final 29 minutes without a three and that was part of the game plan."

Furman's last basket in the final seconds of regulation which led to overtime was by Hien, who finished with six points, five rebounds, four assists and no turnovers in more than 25 minutes - his biggest playing time in four games. Hien was involved in a kerfuffle with Furman trailing 40-31 in the first half. It wasn't bad enough to draw any technical fouls, but it certainly seemed to spark something in Furman as it got the lead down to two by the half.

With just over two minutes left in regulation, Hien was in the middle of a huge sequence that began with Furman trailing 67-63. As Foster got a shot to fall, Hien and Western's Charles Lampton were fighting for rebounding position when Hien took a shot to the throat and fell to the court. After video review, the foul was deemed flagrant. While Hien missed both technical free throws, Furman retained possession and Foster hit another floater in the paint to tie the game.

Furman's winning basket was by Whitt, who played less than four minutes in the regular season finale last Saturday. He finished with four points, two assists, two steals and no turnovers in 15 minutes. It was Whitt's first game with more than one steal since he had four in the win over Western Carolina in Greenville on Jan. 20.

Furman's game-sealing rebound and run out was by Williams, who had played anywhere from 11 to 24 minutes off the bench in the final three games after serving a three-game suspension for a violation of team rules. Williams had eight points, seven rebounds, two assists and two steals in 36 minutes off the bench. The only game in which Williams played longer this season was Furman's double overtime loss at Tulane.

"Just unbelievable grit by Alex Williams on defense. I couldn't be more proud of him," Richey said. "He had the guts to take the three in transition in a tie game. He missed it, but he continued to just get stops. ... To see him play that hard with everything he's been through, it was incredible."

In addition to Pegues (28), Foster (18) and Smith (12) also reached double figures for the Paladins. Foster also grabbed seven rebounds, while Smith had essentially a perfect game. Smith was 5-for-5 from the floor with a pair of threes, and also had three steals, two assists and no turnovers. Cooper Bowser had all three of Furman's blocked shots including two huge ones back-to-back on one Western possession.

Furman had only six turnovers and outside of Hien, no other Paladin had more than one foul. Furman outscored Western 15-7 on points off turnovers. The Paladins also somehow had an 11-4 advantage in second-chance points despite having only six offensive rebounds while Western grabbed nine.

Woolbright finished 5-of-14 from the floor, but still barely missed his fifth triple-double as he had 11 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. Robertson had 17 points, while Jackson scored 15 to lead Western (22-10).

After wrapping up Saturday's night win around 10:45 p.m., Furman's attention had to quickly turn to preparing for regular season champions who they split with this season. Samford wrapped up its quarterfinal win Saturday about nine hours earlier than the Paladins thanks to the new structure of the tournament schedule this season.

"We've just got to go home, get to bed and get to our plan. We've already got a play. We know how we want to play tomorrow," Richey said. "We get past this win the same way we got past last year. That was a semifinal game last year and we had to regroup and get ready for the championship game and we will do the same thing. Everybody's going to make a big deal about the game time ... but at the end of the day, (Sunday's) going to be two really good teams squaring off in a really high-level semifinal game."

No comments:

Post a Comment