‘Dins defend ‘the well’ and expel Mercer

Mike Bothwell led Furman with 17 points in win over Mercer

Furman 81, Mercer 66

Furman used a stellar defensive effort, and when Mercer made attempted runs in the second half, knocked down timely shots, as the Paladins held on for an 81-66 Southern Conference win over the Bears Saturday evening in the first of three games to be played at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena.

With the win, Furman improved to 11-6 overall and 3-1 in Southern Conference play, while Mercer fell to 8-7 overall and 1-1 in league action. For the Paladins, it marked the 13th-straight win in the series for the Paladins against the Bears, and it was also milestone win No. 100 in what has been quite a week for the 39-year old head coach, which included the birth of his third child earlier this week. The win also saw the Paladins improve to 3-1 since the Weekends at the Well idea was conceived back in the 2019-20 season. Furman will play its next game at its downtown home on Feb. 5 when the Paladins host defending SoCon champion UNC Greensboro. 

There’s no time to turn back now and rest on a pair of solid SoCon victories over quality foes that represented each half of last year’s championship game, however, as the Paladins have the SoCon’s two most accomplished basketball programs ahead directly on the horizon, with the Paladins hosting East Tennessee State on Wednesday night before traveling to meet preseason Southern Conference favorite Chattanooga in another nationally-televised contest next Saturday, as a part of the SoCon’s television package with CBS Sports Network. 

Furman’s win on Saturday featured a little bit of everything, with the Paladins using a good shooting performance for the first 17 minutes of the contest, which was combined with maybe its most complete defensive effort for an entire half, allowing Furman to head to the halftime locker room with a 17-point, 44-27 lead.  

The second half saw the Bears fall behind by as many as 20 in the early going (50-30), but never would completely go away, cutting the Paladin lead to just nine (70-61) with 2:48 left, however, could get no closer with the Paladins closing out the game with five-straight points on a pair of foul shots from Jalen Slawson and Mike Bothwell’s lone made three-pointer of the contest to increase their lead back to 14 points with 1:34 remaining. 

For the second-straight game, the Paladins were led in scoring by Bothwell, who finished the night with 17 points on  6-of-14 shooting from the field, including 1-of-6 from three-point range and was a perfect 4-for-4 from the line. The senior guard also dished out five assists, recorded two blocks and added one steal to the Paladin cause. 

Bothwell was one of four Paladins in double figures in the contest,  with Joe Anderson adding his third new career-high of the season, adding 15 points, while Slawson and Marcus Foster added 12 points apiece to round out the Paladins in double figures in the contest. Anderson added all of his 15 points on a career-high five three-pointers, as he knocked down five of six shots from three-point range. The sophomore guard from Maryville, Tenn., also added four rebounds, a steal and an assist.

Slawson, who went just 2-of-9 from the field on the evening, did most all of his offensive damage from the charity stripe. He connected on all eight of his free throw attempts, and finished off a relentless night on the defensive end, in which he added three blocks and three steals. The senior from Summerville, S.C., also dished out a couple of assists. 

Senior point guard Alex Hunter finished on the verge of double figures, adding nine points on a 3-for-7 effort from three-point range, and finished 3-for-9 overall from the field. Hunter added a team-high tying five assists, four rebounds, and added two steals. 

The Bears finished with with four in double figures, led by 14 points from Kamar Robertson, while Jalen Johnson added 13 and Felipe Haase and Shawn Walker, Jr. added 11 and 10 points, respectively, to round out the double-figure scorers. 

Robertson finished the contest by connecting on 4-of-10 shots from the field, including going 1-for-2 from three-point range. He was a perfect 5-for-5 from the charity stripe and added a pair of rebounds, two assists and a steal to his overall box score. 

Highlighting the overall team win for the Paladins was their play on the defensive end of the floor, holding the Bears to just 41.0% (25-of-61) shooting from the field for the game, while holding a 29-21 advantage on the glass. Furman was especially impressive from the charity stripe, finishing by connecting on 23-of-26 shots from the charity stripe.  

Furman, meanwhile, shot the ball at a 42.9% (24-of-56) clip for the game after blistering the nets at a 53.3% (16-of-30) conversion rate in the opening half of play. But despite shooting 30.7 (8-of-26) in the second half, the Paladins did enough on the defensive end and at the free throw line to secure their third Southern Conference win of the season. The Paladins also connected on 38.5% (10-of-26) from three-point range in the win. 

In addition to being a +8 on the backboards, Furman also ended the night holding advantages in fast-break points (10-8) and total assists (18-15). Both teams had 28 points in the paint, and 11 second-chance points. The Bears held slight advantages in points off turnovers (14-11) and bench points (26-24). 

How It Happened:

Two years ago, the “Weekends at the Well” idea by Furman’s Director of Athletics Jason Donnelly looked like a brilliant vision to capitalize on the energy and success Paladin basketball had created in Greenville, and returning to Furman’s downtown roots seemed only natural. It was a grand success, with Furman averaging well over 5,000 fans for three games, going 2-1 in those games against quality competition, taking on Winthrop in a non-conference game, which was followed by a January SoCon tilt against UNC Greensboro and a late February clash with I-85 rival Wofford.

Just as it looked the project was going to continue forward for the 2020-21 season with more momentum than ever, the COVID-19 pandemic put a serious damper on those plans, limiting crowd capacity for nearly every venue around the country, and thus, the plans to return downtown were put on hiatus for at least one season. 

But despite the nation dealing with a second round of COVID, it hasn’t slowed the enthusiasm of crowds in college sports this season, and while it has caused cancellations and postponements to games throughout the nation, it hasn’t limited crowd capacity. With that in mind, Furman moved fearlessly forward for a second season taking advantage of the experiment and a talented Paladin team to showcase, as Furman played Mercer in the first of three appearances downtown at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in the 2021-22 season. 

Furman and Mercer battled early, with physical play on both ends, however, it was the Paladins that looked more interested in mixing things up defensively in the early going, with Jalen Slawson being the catalyst, with a pair of blocks prior to the first media timeout, as the two teams headed to their respective head coaches with the Paladins holding a narrow 10-7 lead.

After the opening media timeout, the Paladins started to show why they had a team worthy of such a outstanding venue and a team deserving of larger crowds against what is always a solid SoCon contender, in Mercer. In fact, after facing Southern Conference Tournament champion and 2021 NCAA Tournament representative UNCG Wednesday night, getting a 58-54 win on the road, it was only fitting that the Paladins would return home to face a Mercer team that contested the Spartans in that SoCon Tournament title game in Asheville last March before eventually losing a hard-fought 69-61 contest to the Spartans. 

Furman turned what had been three-point advantage at the first media timeout into 21-12 lead following a Tyrese Hughey layup with just under 11 minutes remaining in the opening half. The Paladins would assume their first double-double digit lead of the evening on back-to-back layups Garrett Hien, who finished with seven points, as his second layup with off a feed from Alex Hunter gave the Paladins a comfortable 26-15 lead with 8:50 to play in the opening half. 

With six minutes remaining in the half, a Felipe Haase jumper from the right side cut Furman’s lead back to nine for the fourth time in a short span, at 30-21, before Joe Anderson added his second three-pointer of the opening half to give Furman a double-digit lead once again, at 33-21. That’s where the lead would remain for the remainder of the half. Anderson’s three would be part of a quick 9-0 spurt, which eventually saw the Paladins increase their lead to 18 after a Conley Garrison layup in the paint with 3:37 remaining in the half to make it a 39-21 contest.  

The basket by Garrison would see Furman struggle from the field for much of the remainder of the half, with only two Mike Bothwell free throws accounting Furman’s lone points in a 3:26 stretch until Hunter ended the drought with a deep three-pointer from the right elbow off an inbounds pass, which gave Furman its final points of the half, allowing the Paladins to take a 44-27 lead into the halftime locker room. 

In the second half, Furman looked as though it was going to put the game way early, as the Paladins assumed a 20-point advantage, at 50-30, following a pair of free throws and layup from Marcus Foster, and a pair of free throws by Slawson with 18:10 to play in the game to assume the comfortable 20-point edge. 

The lead almost seemed too comfortable, however, as Mercer began to chip away at the Furman lead and get back into the contest, using a 20-10 run to cut Furman’s lead back to 10 on a three-point play the old-fashioned way by Kamar Robertson, as the Bears trailed just 60-50 with 9:30 remaining. Following a pair of Bothwell free throws, which got Furman’s lead back to 12  with a little over nine minutes left, Mercer’s Shawn Walker Jr. added a jumper in the lane to get Mercer back to within 10, at 62-52, with 8:44 remaining.

Both teams would fail to score over the next 2:31, and one of the big reasons the Paladins were able to maintain a hold on the game was the play of freshman forward Tyrese Hughey, who to the untrained eye of an astute basketball fan, might have missed his importance during this particular juncture of the basketball game. After blocking a Robertson layup that could have gotten the Bears to within eight points on one end of the floor with just under seven minutes remaining, Hughey would, in turn, set the stage for one of the biggest shots of the night on the other end of the floor. 

Following a driving layup by Hunter, which missed off the front of the rim, Hughey used his athleticism and length to rise high off the floor and attempt a dunk follow, however, the shot was missed but his hustle in crashing the boards caused Robertson to commit the foul with 6:27 left. That allowed the Paladins to free up Anderson for another big three off the inbounds play following a 30-second timeout by the Paladins, as his top of the key triple gave the Paladins a 65-52 lead with 6:13 remaining. However, the shot felt like a huge momentum swing in the game, with Mercer going from a chance to be down only eight, to eventually seeing Furman go back up by 13. 

The Bears would continue to battle, however, taking on the Big Ten mentality of toughness from their coach—Greg Gary—which was no doubt instilled in him as a young coach serving on Matt Painter’s highly successful staff at Purdue for eight seasons prior to his arrival in Macon in the spring of 2019. Another Anderson three capped what had been a 10-4 run by the Paladins after Mercer had cut the Furman lead to 10, giving the home team a 70-54 lead with exactly five minutes remaining.

A 7-0 run by the Bears, which included a Jalen Johnson three-pointer, and a layup and dunk by Victor Baffuto suddenly had the visiting team from middle Georgia within single digits for the first time since the score was 30-21 with six minutes left in the opening half, as Baffuto’s second basket in the paint made it a 70-61 game with 2:48 remaining. That would be as close as Gary’s Bears would get, however, as the Paladins pushed the lead back to 14 on two Slawson foul shots and a three-pointer from Bothwell with 1:34 remaining following one of Furman’s 12 offensive rebounds in the contest, as the Paladins pushed the lead back to 14, at 75-61. 

Another Johnson three-pointer got the Bears to within 11 with 1:15 left, but the Bears were forced to put the Paladins at the line the rest of the way and had to hope they would do something, which they hadn’t done all that often all afternoon. In fact, Furman would make six of its final eight foul shots to close out the 15-point win, and up until Hunter’s final two unsuccessful charity shots with 28 seconds left, the Paladins had made 23 of their 24 shot attempts from the free throw line in the contest. 

Post-Game Press Conference:

Head coach Bob Richey talks about win No. 100
Mike Bothwell (left) and Joe Anderson (right)

Up Next: 

Furman returns to Timmons Arena Wednesday night to do battle with the East Tennessee State Buccaneers in a matchup slated for 7 p.m. The Bucs, who under the direction of first-year head coach Desmond Oliver, fell to 9-7 overall and 1-2 in league action after a 68-57 loss to Wofford Saturday at Freedom Hall in Johnson City. The Paladins and Bucs split the meetings last season. 

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