Saturday, March 2, 2024

Woolbright helps hand Furman another road loss

J.P. Pegues (1) scored 35 points, but Vonterius Woolbright (2) had his fourth triple-double
this season in Western Carolina's 85-77 win over Furman. Photo courtesy of Furman

CULLOWHEE, N.C. - For the second consecutive Wednesday, Furman wasted a career-high night by J.P. Pegues as the Paladins' Jekyll and Hyde, home and away act continued. Western Carolina used a 30-9 run over a nine-minute stretch of the second half to rally for an 85-77 win in Furman's final road game of the season.

The Paladins (16-14, 10-7 Southern Conference) were coming off a 15-point win over Wofford in which they allowed just one made field goal over the final four minutes - a meaningless three-pointer with 25 seconds left after the Terriers had missed six consecutive shots. On Wednesday, the Catamounts led 65-62 with six minutes left and didn't miss a field goal the rest of the way. Those five field goals - three of which were three-pointers - helped Western shoot 60 percent in its 55-point second half.

"We had 11 deflections the entire game. You're not going to beat a whole lot of people doing that. I just thought we were a half-second late on a lot of plays tonight. I'm not sure why that was. I thought we had two good days of practice and we just didn't appear fresh," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "We were up nine at one point in the second half and it was really similar to the game last year. They made a run and hit us and we didn't respond back real well."

Furman finishes with a 4-10 record on the road this season, in addition to 0-2 in neutral site games. It's the Paladins' worst road record since the 2015-16 team went 3-12 on the road. This year's 3-6 mark at SoCon opponents is Furman's first losing record in league road games since that 2015-16 team went 2-7.

"It wasn't all bad, it just wasn't consistent enough in a road environment like this against a team like that. ... This time of year, we've all got to be ready to be our best There's a process that you've got to go in to be ready to play," Richey said. "Unfortunately, that's two games on the road where we've had to put a lot on J.P.'s back. At home, we seem to be freer and looser and we play more connected and relaxed.

"We don't have to go win the conference (tournament) on the road, but we're not going to be in Timmons (Arena). We've got to figure out what we've got to do to come out and be free, be confident and look like we're out there enjoying the game."

In a matchup of what some would say are the two best players in the SoCon, Pegues and Western's Vonterius Woolbright put on a show. After a 33-point performance at Samford a week earlier, Pegues had a new career-high 35 points and a team-high five assists Wednesday. Meanwhile, Woolbright finished with 15 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds for his fourth triple-double this season and fifth of his career.

The difference Wednesday was that Woolbright's assist total matched that of Furman as the Catamounts (21-9, 10-7) had five players in double figures. They were led by Russell Jones, who hit numerous big shots down the stretch and was 4-of-8 on threes. After being held to three points on 1-of-8 shooting in 37 minutes during Western's loss at Furman earlier this season, Jones had a team-high 20 points Wednesday.

While much is deservedly made of Woolbright's eye-popping offensive numbers, his defense was also a factor Wednesday. The 6-foot-6 guard's length was a problem on quite a few of Marcus Foster's shots. Woolbright helped hold Furman's leading scorer to just five points on 2-of-14 shooting, including 1-of-10 on threes.

"J.P. was phenomenal. He really put the team on his back, but our formula has never been for one guy to do it all. ... We just didn't play with as much confidence as I'd like, outside of J.P.," Richey said. "They had five guys in double figures and we had two. That's why they beat us. ... Woolbright was really good. He played with a lot of juice and poise. I think he got a little frustrated with some turnovers early, but man he made some plays - especially when they were down."

Furman trailed by as many as 11 in the first half and was down 29-21 with three-and-a-half minutes left before an 11-0 run helped the Paladins take a 32-30 lead into halftime. Pegues' three-pointer and four free throws and Cooper Bowser's dunk and two free throws accounted for all the scoring in that run.

The Paladins led at the half despite shooting 34.5 percent, including 2-of-13 (15.4 percent) from three. There had to be the thought that if Furman simply played "okay" defense the rest of the way, its offense certainly would improve after halftime. The Paladins did shoot 47 percent in the second half and hit nine threes, but the defensive letdown made their shooting improvement meaningless.

Ben VanderWal hit back-to-back three-pointers sandwiched around a three-point play by Woolbright to start the second half. Then Pegues and Woolbright just starting going back-and-forth like a classic prize fight. In a less than two minute stretch, Pegues hit a pair of threes and a jumper while Woolbright hit a pair of layups and had an assist on a three by Jones. A minute later, Pegues had a three-point play that Western's Bernard Pelote answered with a three off an assist from Woolbright.

Alex Williams' lone three and Foster's lone three gave Furman a 57-48 lead with 11:52 left before the Catamounts went on a 9-0 run. After Garrett Hien answered that run with a dunk, Corneilous Williams came back with a dunk off an assist by Woolbright on the other end. That sent the game to the under-eight timeout tied at 59. Coming out of the timeout, Pegues hit a pair of free throws before Woolbright once again found Williams for a layup.

With the game tied 61-61 and 7:10 left, perhaps the biggest play of the night gave Western a lead it never relinquished. After Woolbright's layup didn't fall, Williams grabbed the offense rebound and was fouled hard by Hien on the putback attempt. After video review, Hien's fouled was changed to a flagrant technical. Williams hit one free throw and after retaining possession, Tre Jackson made a three-point play giving Western a four-point possession and a four-point lead. After a VanderWal free throw cut the lead to three, Pelote hit another three to start a 13-4 run that put the game out of reach.

"They outplayed us tonight. Let's give them credit," Richey said. "We've got to bounce back quickly. We've got to move on and go close out this season well at home on Saturday versus Mercer."

Pelote had 11 points, six rebounds and two blocks and Western outscored Furman by 26 during his 22 minutes off the bench. Williams had just five points and four rebounds in his 13 minutes off the bench, but he had a plus-minus of plus-14.

VanderWal was the lone other Paladin in double figures, as he had 10 points, six rebounds and two of Furman's four steals.

Looking ahead

Furman will wrap up the regular season by hosting Mercer Saturday at 2 p.m. The game will be televised locally by The CW Ch. 62. It will be the final game in Timmons Arena until the 2025-26 season as renovations will take place all next season.

The Paladins could turn around and face Western Carolina again as the No. 4 vs. No. 5 seed game in the final quarterfinal game of the SoCon Tournament next Saturday in Asheville, but a Furman-Wofford matchup seems more likely. The Paladins and Catamounts are currently tied for fourth at 10-7 in league play, while the Terriers are 9-8.

The only guarantee entering Saturday is that Furman will be in that 4/5 game, which means the Paladins will hang around all day waiting to play. This is the first season in which the SoCon has gone to a quarterfinal schedule where the top four seeds' games will be played in order, one through four.

This Saturday, Western Carolina plays at second-place Chattanooga at 2 p.m., while Wofford will play at last-place VMI at 1 p.m. If no upsets (according to standings) occur, Furman and the Terriers would be victorious while the Catamounts would lose. That would leave the Paladins alone in fourth place and Western and Wofford tied. Those teams split in the regular season, but Wofford would earn the No. 5 seed tiebreaker by virtue of its blowout win over SoCon regular season champion Samford on Wednesday.

In any tiebreaker with Western or Wofford or both, Furman would get the tiebreaker for the No. 4 seed.

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