Furman loses tough battle at preseason favorite Chattanooga

Paladins drop heartbreaker in Scenic City

In a matchup between the SoCon’s two top projected teams in the preseason, it was  consensus preseason favorite Chattanooga that held off preseason No. 2 pick Furman,  71-69, as the Mocs pulled a half-game ahead before an electric crowd of 3,607 at McKenzie Arena on-hand with the threat of inclement weather in the forecast. . 

With the win, Chattanooga improves to 14-4 overall and 4-1 in SoCon, while Furman fell to 12-7 overall and 4-2 in Southern Conference play.

On a day when Chattanooga fans were encouraged to wear gold, it was Chattanooga’s rowdy fan base that made it a true old-school Southern Conference atmosphere, and it proved to be a true “sixth man” as the Mocs were able to hold serve at home even playing without the services of David Jean-Baptiste, and needed its crowd to be loud to help snap what was an eight-game losing streak in the series to the Paladins.

While the game didn’t rest on one shot as winning or losing the game for either Furman or Chattanooga, it did come down to the Mocs blitzing the Paladins 37-25 on the glass, while seeing the Mocs have their role players step up in mature moments when they had to a little more than Furman—a stat which isn’t and can’t be analytically measured in what is a sport now driven by stats and analytical input. 

Ultimately, it was the veteran maturity of Malachi Smith, who converted both ends of a 1-and-1 foul by Mike Bothwell on one end with 7.6 seconds remaining, while it was the Paladins calling timeout to set up a perfect play for sophomore guard on the other, in Marcus Foster. 

The the good news is, like life, basketball isn’t judged in one moment. Foster’s missed layup with a little over a second remaining won’t be a reflection on what has been and will be an outstanding career for the promising young player from Atlanta, however, on this particular afternoon in the Scenic City, it will serve as a memory for both him individually to grow from as he continues to mature as into a finished product as a standout player, while it also serves a moment for the Mocs to realize their own moment of growth as a collective team, overcoming a nemesis, in a really good Furman team that had beaten them eight-straight times. 

Foster had been one of Furman’s few bright spots on the boards and had just connected on a key triple from the corner moments earlier, it that was something Furman head coach Bob Richey was keen to point out postgame. Richey acknowledged his miss, but realized Foster’s importance far outweighed his moment of human error he will most assuredly learn a great, but hard lesson from.

“It’s just a missed wide-open layup by Marcus [Foster], but the game didn’t come down to that,” Furman head coach Bob Richey said. 

“I feel terrible for Marcus…He’s worked really, really hard…Marcus Foster was a plus two when he was out in the game so for there to be any thought to that’s why we lost the game is crazy…Every time he was out on the court tonight cumulatively we were plus two…Marcus did a lot and he led us in rebounding on a day when we got destroyed on the glass,” Richey added.

While Furman has had to learn the hard way in some close losses this season, it hasn’t been as often for the league-leading Mocs, although it could be argued its lesson learned at Western Carolina in a 70-59 setback was more humbling than perhaps all of Furman’s close setbacks combined.

It seems that in Furman’s losses this season, they haven’t won the gritty battles necessary for success. The losses to Navy, VMI and now Chattanooga are evidence of that. However, in other games, like the wins over Appalachian State, College of Charleston, UNCG and Louisville, the grit and toughness required was evident.

Senior big man Jalen Slawson led all scorers with 22 points

A contrast of toughness…A Brief Look Back to the last meeting

Saturday’s loss to Chattanooga came in complete contrast to the lone meeting between the two last season, which resulted in a 77-73 win for Furman at McKenzie Arena. The Paladins were tougher and more physical in the paint, and just one glance at the Dec. 30, 2020 game gives full evidence of that. 

The story of that some 381 days ago was what Furman did in the paint, and that was simply dominate the game from start to finish.  The Paladins dominated the paint to the tune of a 50-18 edge in points in the paint. That help off-set a 4-for-14 performance from three-point range for the Paladins.

Meanwhile, the Mocs were red-hot from three-point range in the contest, finishing going 13-of-26 from beyond the arc. In last year’s game, both Furman and Chattanooga shot the ball well from the field, with the Paladins connecting on 51.8% from the field for the game, while the Mocs shot the ball at a 47.3% clip for the game. 

Furman held advantages in points off turnovers (15-10), points in the paint (50-18), second-chance points (14-2), total rebounds (33-26), and fast-break points (5-0). The Mocs held a substantial edge in bench scoring (35-9). The game featured 10 lead changes and four ties.

Much of that was because Chattanooga was staying locked in on Furman’s shooters, not giving them any air on the perimeter. That forced Furman into a lot of 2-on-2 basketball, with the pick-and-roll making the Paladins look like the Utah Jazz under Jerry Sloan at times in the win, with such crisp cutting away from the basketball making Furman’s brand of hoops a beautifully designed production in motion.

“They stayed out on our shooters and we just did a great job of attacking the paint all night. I thought we were patient with our offense and let the ball move,”  Furman coach Bob Richey told Dan Scott on the Furman Radio Network’s postgame interview.

Plenty to do before Asheville

While Chattanooga and Furman might be the best two teams currently in the Southern Conference, the game seemingly highlighted decencies more than strengths at this point in the season, even though it looked like a great performance aesthetically before a national television audience on CBS Sports Network.

Furman’s senior big man Jalen Slawson led all scorers with 22 points, while the Mocs got a team-high 21 points to match his SoCon leading scoring average coming into the matchup. 

Slawson finished out the night connecting on 8-of-14 shots from the field, and was 1-of-5 from three-point range, and was a perfect 5-for-5 from the free throw line. Slawson also finished with four rebounds,  four assists, recorded a pair of steals and blocked a shot in another strong performance for the senior big man from Summerville, S.C., recorded his 17th double-figure performance in 19 games this season. His 22-point effort marked his fourth game of the season of 20 or more points.

Following a first half which saw the senior Paladin post player seven points on 3-of-7 shooting from the field, and 1-of-3 from three-point range. In the second half, Slawson came alive to score 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field and was a perfect 5-for-5 from the charity stripe. The only two shots Slawson missed in the second half were from three-point land.  

Slawson was joined in double figures by classmate Mike Bothwell, who posted 15 points, while graduate senior Alex Hunter finished with 13, as the trio once again accounted for a majority of the Paladin points scoring 50 of the Paladins’ 69 points in the contest.

Bothwell posted his seventh-straight double-figure scoring effort since going scoreless in the loss at Mississippi State, posting his 15 points on 5-of-12 from the field, including 1-of-3 from three-point land. Bothwell was also a perfect 4-of-4 from the charity stripe. 

The senior from Cleveland Heights, OH, added four assists, three rebounds and a block. In the past three outings against Mercer, ETSU and Chattanooga, Bothwell is sharing the basketball as well as any Paladin of late, having posting a combined total of 15 assists. 

Hunter rounded out the double-figure scoring efforts for the Paladins, posting his 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting from the field, including 3-of-6 from three-point range. Hunter finished with eight of his 13 points in the opening half of play to tie for the team lead. The senior guard from Raleigh, N.C., had one of the rarest stat lines of his career, failing to dish out a single assist in the contest, while turning the ball over twice. 

He is easily going to end his Paladin career with the best assist-turnover ratios in program history, and will likely rank up there in SoCon in history in that same statistic. It marked only the second time in the past two seasons he has had zero assists in a game, with no assists in a win over Southern Wesleyan during the 2020-21 campaign. The graduate senior also added three rebounds.

Senior grad transfer Conley Garrison, who was coming off a 23-point second half against ETSU to help lead the Paladins to an impressive nine-point home win, followed it up with an outstanding opening half of play against the Mocs in the opening half of play, tying Hunter for team-high scoring honors, scoring eight points on 3-of-3 shooting from the field and 2-of-2 from three-point range. He ended with eight points on 3-of-4 from the field and ended 2-of-3 from from long range. He also added four rebounds, two assists and a pair of steals. 

Smith was simply sensational as he has been for most of the season for the Mocs, and showed why he was the leader in the clubhouse to garner the league’s player-of-the-year award, as he posted his 21 points on 7-of-14 from the field, and 2-of-4 from three-point range. Smith also went 5-for-6 from the charity stripe. Like Slawson for the Paladins, Smith had a big second half.  

After connecting on just 2-of-6 from the field and scoring four points in the opening half, Smith came alive in the second half, connecting on 5-of-8 shots from the field, including 2-for-2 from three-point range and was 5-for-6 from beyond the arc in the second half. He just missed posting his second double-double of the season, finishing with nine boards. He also had one assist and a pair of steals. 

Smith also picked up his league-leading 12th game with 20 or more points-per-game this season, including his fourth in conference play alone.

Joining Smith in double figures for UTC were Grant Ledford, who finished with 13 points, while Kansas grad transfer Silvio De Sousa added 11 points, with all of his offensive production coming in the opening half of play, as he led all scorers in the opening half of play. De Sousa also finished with seven rebounds. De Sousa accounted for all of the team’s seven points prior to the first media timeout of the contest.

Ledford ended up being the x-factor off the bench for the Mocs, as his 13 points came on a 5-of-6 shooting performance from the field, including a 3-for-4 effort from three. It marked just Ledford’s third double-figure effort of the season, and first since posting an 18-point effort in a lopsided pre-Thanksgiving win over Covenant. 

Ledford’s performance almost entirely made up for the absence of Jean-Baptiste, who was the Mocs’ second-leading scorer coming into the contest, averaging 14.6 PPG. Ledford, redshirt junior A.J. Caldwell, and junior K.C. Hankton all exceeded their point totals coming into the contest, and the trio combined to score 26 points to the Mocs cause.

Making Ledford’s performance even more vital for UTC was the fact that his 3-of-4 effort from three and 5-of-6 effort from the field were contrary to anything he had done on the court shooting-wise for Chattanooga the entire season. He came in with a 35.7% (25-of-70) field goal percentage for the season, which included a 24.9% clip (12-of-49) from three-point land. That thought was not one lost on head coach Lamont Paris, who needed his team and his role players to respond following Wednesday night’s loss at Western Carolina and knowing that, for a second-straight game, the Mocs would be without one of their key leaders.

“Oftentimes that’s what it comes down to and often you get to thinking about relying on the main guy or whatever level that’s at whether be college level or the pros,” head coach Lamont Paris said. 

“Here’s the best guy…or the guy who scores the most or we got to rely on him or its got to go to him but what normally or generally keeps it going is not for one guy to do it for an entire game unless you have a Michael Jordan going for 63 points or the flu game or something like that right…It’s hard to do it for the whole duration of the game because you need some help even if you’re having a great day and quite often it comes down to a just a shot…Even for them on the last play…if you look at it even if he makes that shot or shoots the three from the corner…He’s probably not option A on that little scenario but he was at that time so to have a guy or guys step up and make those plays…It’s  critical to winning and losing, and if you’re only banking on your best scorers then you’re probably going to have a lot of night’s like we did at Western Carolina,” he added. 

The Particulars and other Notables:

Furman held the lead for 22:55 of the contest, which included taking a 38-33 lead into the half-time locker room only to see the Mocs out-score them 38-31 in the second half. In both SoCon losses this season, the Paladins have surrendered halftime leads on the road. The Paladins surrendered a 36-30 halftime lead at VMI only to drop a 76-67 decision at Cameron Hall. 

Chattanooga held the lead for 13:59 in the contest. The game would feature six lead changes and five ties, with each team leading by as much as eight points in each respective half. Furman held an eight-point lead (25-17) with 8:41 remaining in the first half, while the Mocs held an eight-point lead (52-44) with 12:53 left in the second half. 

As a team, Furman completed the contest connecting on 44.6% (25-of-56) shots from the field, including connecting on 39.1% (9-of-23) from three-point range. 

Chattanooga finished the afternoon connecting on 47.5% (28-of-59) from the field, while like Furman, made 39.1% (9-of-23) of its long-range shots. 

Both Furman and Chattanooga shot the ball well from the charity stripe, with the Paladins hitting 90.9% (10-of-11) of its free throws, while the Mocs were 85.7% (6-of-7).

Chattanooga improved its record to 31-11 against Furman in Chattanooga, while improving to 55-37 in the all-time series. The Paladins dropped to 1-2 in games decided by three points or less and 0-5 when scoring 60-69 points. The Paladins also saw their road record dip to 4-6 this season.

The Mocs also finished the game by owning advantages in fast-break points (7-2), points in the paint (28-24), bench points (19-6), total rebounds (37-25), and total assists (12-10).

Furman finished the contest with advantages in points from turnovers (16-6) and second-chance points (12-11). 

How It Happened:

Furman and Chattanooga would play a game worthy of the top two teams at the top of the Southern Conference, as it was sloppy at times on both ends, but at others, it sheer beautiful basketball. Both the Paladins and Mocs played hard, and gave the atmosphere on-hand inside McKenzie Arena plenty of credence.

The Paladins opened the game with a strong half of basketball, as.Furman was able to shoot 50% in the opening half (15-of-30) to take a 38-33 lead into the half.

Chattanooga started the game in strong fashion, however, as Silvio De Sousa scored the seven points before the first media timeout, opening the scoring with a three-pointer from the top of the key 53 seconds into the contest, bringing a roar from nearly 4,000 fans on-hand in anticipation of a championship level basketball game. 

The Paladins answered with their first points of the day, posting a layup following an offensive rebound from Jalen Slawson. After De Sousa got a rebound and put-back of his own on to give the Mocs a 5-2 advantage, Conley Garrison answered with his first of two threes in the opening half to tie the contest, 5-5. De Sousa finished off his strong start with a reverse layup off the window off a spin move on the baseline to make it a 7-5 lead, as the two teams headed to the first media timeout. 

The Paladins were able to take advantage of hot-shooting from three in the opening half of play, as the Paladins connected on seven of their nine threes in the opening half of play, shooting 58.3% (7-of-12) from downtown, which was a big reason why the Paladins were able to extend their lead to as much as eight points following the first media timeout.

A 9-0 spurt on a pair of threes from Alex Hunter, and another from Tyrese Hughey combined with a free throw from Garrett Hien allowed the Paladins to double up the Mocs, 14-7, with 13:17 remaining in the opening frame. A Grant Ledford three and a layup by Malachi Smith got the Mocs back to within two points before Garrison answered with Furman’s fourth three of the opening half to make it a 17-12 game with 12:16 left in the opening half.

An Avery Diggs layup following a J.P. Pegues missed three-pointer cut UTC’s deficit to three, and then after a Slawson missed triple, Mocs guard Tada Stricklen found Ledford open in the corner to tie the contest, 17-17, with just under 11 minutes remaining in the opening half of play. 

A quick 10-3 spurt by the Paladins following the second media timeout gave the Paladins a 27-20 lead on a Slawson layup with 7:47 to play in the opening frame. During the spurt, the Paladins assumed their biggest lead of the game on an 8-0 run on a pair of layups from Mike Bothwell, with one coming off a steal and the other off an offensive rebound, while Marcus Foster and Conley Garrison also added layups during the stretch, with Garrison’s layup with 8:41 giving the Paladins what would ultimately be their largest lead of the game, at 25-17.

 Ledford finally answered with a three for the Mocs to get Chattanooga back to within five, at 25-20 with 8:13 remaining in the half. Furman would extend its lead back to as much as seven off a Mocs turnover, as Tyrese Hughey’s slam gave the Paladins a 29-22 with 6:31 left in the opening half.

Chattanooga responded to get as close as three on a K.C. Hankton layup followed by a Darius Banks layup in transition off a Furman turnover to make it a 29-26 Mocs deficit with 3:46 remaining in the half. That would be as close as Chattanooga would get the rest of the half, as Furman eventually pushed its lead back to seven off a long three from the top of the key from Hunter, as Furman assumed a 38-31 lead with 57 seconds remaining in the half.

However, just as Furman went to the locker room with a great deal of momentum in Greenville vs. ETSU following a Garrett Hien three-pointer Wednesday night vs. ETSU, the same would hold true for the Mocs against the Paladins, as De Sousa got the ball in the paint, backed down Slawson, who fell down on the paint, and De Sousa finished with a monster dunk to cut Chattanooga’s lead to five, at 38-33, as the two teams headed to the half. 

In the second half, it wouldn’t take the Mocs long to re-take the lead for the first time since De Sousa’s early seven points had given the Mocs advantage early in the matchup of the two SoCon heavyweights. After Furman took a 40-33 lead with a Slawson bucket in the paint, the Mocs used eight straight points from Malachi Smith to fuel an 8-2 run to cut the Paladin lead to a single point, at 42-41, following a Smith jumper in transition with the half less than three minutes old. 

A pair of Bothwell foul shots extended Furman’s lead back to three, however, five-straight from the Mocs allowed them to take their first lead since the 16:23 mark of the opening half, as Josh Ayeni dropped in a layup to get Chattanooga within a point (43-44), and after the first media timeout of the second half, a Foster missed jumper for the Paladins led to an open A.J. Caldwell triple and a 46-44 Chattanooga lead on the other at the 15:18 mark of the frame.

From there, it looked like the Mocs might blow the game open. Malachi Smith’s two free throws with 12:53 remaining gave the Mocs their largest lead of the game, at 52-44, and was the culmination of a 21-6 run spanning two halves, which saw the Mocs seize control of the game. 

Furman was never going to go away, however, as no championship caliber team ever does. Much as Bob Richey’s club has done all season, the Paladins just kept coming, never letting the Mocs enjoy any comfort. A 10-3 run was just what Richey ordered, and following a Slawson three-point play the old-fashioned way following a Slawson driving baseline layup, which rolled around and dropped through, made it a 55-54 game with 9:02 remaining. 

Over the next four minutes, Chattanooga’s lead would reach four twice, but the Paladins continued to chip answering each time, with the second of those four-point advantages (60-56) answered in emphatic fashion off a set play following the under eight minute media timeout, as Foster’s wide open three keeping Furman well within striking distance, at 60-59, with 7:24 left.

With 4:15 remaining, Furman regained its early second half lead following a Bothwell layup, which gave Furman a 63-62 lead. The lead marked Furman’s first since the 16:11 mark of the second half, which saw the Paladins clinging to a 44-43 advantage.

From that point it was game-on. Banks answered with a jumper with 3:19 remaining giving the Mocs the 64-63 lead. After the final media timeout of the contest, Bothwell was fouled a good distance from the basket by Banks, which put the Paladins in the one-and-one bonus, as it was the Mocs’ seventh team foul. Bothwell converted both ends, allowing Furman to regain a one-point, 65-64 lead with 3:01 left. 

It appeared Furman was going to then close strong as it had done at home against Chattanooga’s bitter Volunteer State rival Wednesday night, as the Paladins smelled blood in the water. Following a turnover by Mocs guard A.J. Caldwell, Slawson was fouled by Caldwell, putting him at the line for another one-and-one. Slawson connected on both ends just as his classmate Bothwell had moments earlier, allowing the Paladins to assume a bit of a cushion, at 67-64, with 2:26 left.

Chattanooga would respond with perhaps its biggest play of the game when Banks drove down the heart of the lane and converted a layup while also drawing a foul on Foster to get a chance to complete a three-point play with a foul shot. His free throw was nothing but net, tying the game, 67-67, with exactly 2:00 remaining.

Furman again went to its main man in the clutch, which was Slawson, and again, the Mocs had to foul the senior, with Banks picking up his fourth personal foul with 1:35 left. Slawson’s free throws gave the Paladins the lead by two once again, at 69-67, after knocking down both foul shots in his usual composed fashion. 

It was perhaps the Mocs’ next possession that summed up Furman’s afternoon the most. Following a Banks missed three-pointer, the Paladins did close out UTC on the glass, allowing the 6-5 guard Caldwell to nudge his way into position to get the offensive rebound with 1:10 left, and eight seconds later, Chattanooga’s man of the moment so many times this season—Malachi Smith—made the Paladins pay with an easy layup in the middle of the lane to tie the game, 69-69.  

Instead of calling timeout, Furman head coach Bob Richey decided to let the scenario play out on the offensive end, and a perfect screen by Slawson led to a wide-open look for point guard Alex Hunter—a shot Hunter almost always make, however, this time the shot hit back iron and was rebounded by Mocs forward Josh Ayeni with 30 seconds left. 

On the other end and with the game tied, 69-69, the Mocs took a timeout with 25 seconds remaining to set up a play. With 7.6 seconds left, Bothwell went for a steal on a pass thrown to Smith, but made contact with Smith and was called for his second personal foul to put Smith at the line for a one-and-one and a chance for a UTC lead.

Smith knocked down both, making it a 71-69 contest. Following the Bothwell foul, Furman’s Richey called a timeout to set up the play. After the second made foul shot, Furman seemingly had the perfect play set up for a chance at winning the game or tying it.

Marcus Foster’s layup attempt on Furman’s final possession

When Foster  received the pass in the corner from Bothwell, he was open enough to have opted to shoot a corner three, however, instead he chose the much smarter option, which was driving the baseline for what looked like a game-tying lay-up, however, likely expecting to be fouled or perhaps shocked that he was so open, he missed the layup and Ayeni grabbed the rebound as time expired and Chattanooga’s crowd roared as the buzzer sounded at  McKenzie Arena in the wake of a 71-69 win. 

Bob Richey/Furman
UTC head coach Lamont Paris

Up Next:

Furman will host Western Carolina (8-10, 2-3 SoCon) Wednesday night at Timmons Arena. 

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