Furman has had its fill of successes against Western Carolina on the college basketball hardwood in recent seasons, however, on the final day of the year of 2022, the Paladins saw their 13-game winning streak come to an end against the Catamounts, as Western Carolina handed the Paladins their first SoCon and fifth overall setback of the season, with a 79-67 triumph Saturday afternoon at the Ramsey Center.
With the win, the Catamounts improved to 8-7 overall and 1-1 in Southern Conference action, while the Paladins fell to 10-5 overall and 1-1 in league action.
The game of basketball is such a stat-driven sport, with analytics all over the place. The hardwood might as well be a smorgasbord of analytics. It doesn’t take too long to figure that out, after one glance at WCU SID Steven Grandy’s game notes for Western Carolina, I almost immediately noticed one of those statistical nuggets that has in a way defined the Catamounts’ fortunes as a basketball team in 2022-23. The Catamounts came into the hardwood version of the “Battle of Purple Supremacy” with a 7-0 record this season when canning 10 or more three-pointers and 0-7 when failing to do so.
And after a 9% (3-for-31) effort in the second half against UNCG last time out, which also included a 6% (1-of-15) performance, you figured the Catamounts needed one of those 10-spot trifecta games against the Paladins, and it wasn’t unreasonable to think they could pull it off, as even though the Paladins enter conference play as the prohibitive favorite to win the SoCon, they ranked ninth among the league’s 10 teams at defending the shot that changed college basketball, which oddly originated in Cullowhee in 1980 with Ronnie Carr noted for that accomplishment against Middle Tennessee State.
Hall-of-Fame SID and Western Carolina athletics historian Steve White, who was recognized prior to tip-off for his many accomplishments in his better than three decades of service to the program, can tell you all about it and how the tip-off was moved just ahead of Chattanooga’s that season to ensure WCU owned the record. After all, White was his SID, but as legendary as he is as a WCU and SoCon historian, he’s an even better person. But that’s a story for another day. The three-pointer is still a very big part of the Catamount offense, and as the clock wound down, the total sat at nine for the day with the Catamounts clinging to a lead over the league favorite.
With 3:54 remaining, the Catamounts swished through their 10th of the day, with it fittingly coming from Bernard Pelote, who had one of his best shooting performances as a Catamount, scoring 14 points off the bench and was 6-of-9 from the field, including 2-for-4 from three. The former Catawba College and South Atlantic Conference standout was key off the bench all afternoon for the Catamounts.
The shooting woes experienced by Western last time out seemed but a distant memory for the Catamounts, who gained confidence as Saturday’s game wore on. And that confidence bristled despite one of the leading SoCon newcomers–Morehead State transfer Tyzhaun Claude–having his toughest afternoon yet as a Catamount.
Saddled with foul trouble for most of the day, Claude, who had posted the season 14-straight double-figure scoring performances to start his career, found that he had to contribute in other areas to make “winning plays”, which he was completely willing to do.
Pelote scoring nine of his 14 in the second half, and had an electrifying follow-up dunk in the opening half, providing one of at least two highlight-reel type dunks for the Purple and Gold in the contest. He grabbed a career-best eight rebounds in the contest.
Pelote was one of four Catamounts in double figures, as Western Carolina was able to overcome a three-point halftime deficit by outscoring the Paladins 41-26 in the second half.
The Catawba transfer was a major part of Catamount bench that outscored Furman’s bench a whopping 19-2. It is an alarming stat for the Paladin coaching staff, which saw that same bench contingent outscore the Keydets 39-22 last time out.
The Catamounts were actually led in scoring by Iowa State transfer Tre Jackson, who posted a 17-point afternoon for the hometown shade of Purple, while Winthrop transfer Russell Jones Jr. chipped in with 15. Vonterius Woolbright finished with 14 points to match Pelote.
Jackson finished the night with a 60% shooting effort from the field for the Catamounts, connecting on 6-of-10 from the field and exactly half of the team’s 10 triples, as he was 5-of-9 from beyond the arch.
Furman finished with three in double figures, as Garrett Hien paced the ‘Dins with 20 points, matching his career-high of 20 points he established earlier this season in the Charleston Classic against South Carolina in what was a 79-60 win over the Gamecocks.
The Charlotte, N.C., finished the afternoon by connecting on 8-of-11 shots from the field and was an impressive 4-of-7 from three-point range. Additonally, Hien added five boards, three assists and a steal.
Mike Bothwell, who played 39 of the 40 possible for the Paladins Saturday, chipped in with 18 points, two assists and a steal.
Jalen Slawson rounded out the Paladins in double figures, as he added 16 points, seven rebounds and blocked a shot.
The Catamounts finished the contest by knocking down 51.9% (28-of-54) shots from the field, which included a 45.5% (10-of-22) effort from three-point land in the win.
Furman finished the contest connecting on 49.0% (24-of-49) from the field and finished just 34.8% (8-of-23) from three-point land. The Paladins shot the ball well in the opening half, connecting on 65.2% (15-of-23) of their shots in the opening half of play, including 80% (12-of-15) on two-point field goal attempts.
The Catamount defense was able to affect Furman’s shooting significantly in the second half, holding the Paladins to just 34.6% (9-of-26) from the field and 37.5% (5-of-15) from three-point land.
Furman finished the contest owning advantages in total assists (13-12) and points off turnovers (17-12).
The Catamounts, meanwhile, owned advantages in total rebounds (35-21), points in the paint (34-32), fast-break points (13-5), second-chance points (13-7), and bench points (19-2).
How It Happened:
It appeared Furman might be ready to open up some breathing room between and Western Carolina early in the second half, as the Paladins opened the second stanza on a 10-3 spurt to take a 50-41 lead following a Garrett Hien top of the key three with 16:06 remaining in the contest and just prior to the first media timeout of the second half. Hien’s three had helped the Paladins extend their 41-38 halftime lead by six more points heading into the first media timeout of the second half.
However, it would be all Catamounts from that point forward, as the Purple and Gold out-scored the Paladins 38-17 the remainder of the game over the final 16 minutes of game action.
The Catamounts started that run over the final 16 minutes with three-straight three-pointers to tie the game, 50-50, starting with a beautifully-designed play off the media timeout by Catamount head coach Justin Gray, setting up a wide-open three-pointer by Tre Jackson from the right elbow. It sparked a quick 9-0 spurt, and the Catamounts never relented in pouring on the pressure on both ends of the floor, out-scoring the Paladins 38-17 the remainder of the game to get the win.
The Catamounts were able to stay within striking distance for the remainder of the afternoon. With Western Carolina trailing the contest 57-55 with just under 10 minutes remaining in the game, it was fitting that Bernard Pelote that grabbed a rebound late in the contest and tied the game on a layup. A little baby jumper in the lane gave Catamounts their first lead since the opening stanza on the next possession, and they wouldn’t look back the remainder of the day.
Tre Jackson’s three from the top of the key capped what was 9-0 run to give the Catamounts a 64-57 lead with 7:49 left.
The Paladins got back to with six, at 66-60, with 6:30 remaining on a foul shot by Alex Williams, however, speedy point guard Russell Jones Jr. scored four-straight points on a pair of layups to put the Catamounts up double digits with 4:25 remaining. The lead would grow to as much as 15 points and the Paladins couldn’t get within single digits for the remainder of the game.
Gray’s Cats Respond
Fresh from a 9% shooting effort in the second half against UNCG and playing against a team picked to win the Southern Conference before what was more of a hearty gathering than an actual big crowd on a New Year’s Eve league game, Western Carolina had every excuse to offer if they were to drop a 14th-straight game to Furman.
However, when the chips were down Saturday against the Paladins, trailing by nine points following a Garrett Hien three-pointer, Western Carolina responded emphatically. Western Carolina outscored Furman 38-17 the rest of the way, and more importantly did it on the defensive endf of the floor by holding a Paladin team that shot better than 60% in the opening half of play to just 34.6% from the field in the second.
“We’re still a work in progress,” head coach Justin Gray said. “The most important thing is to have unwavering confidence in the work you put in,” Gray added.
One of the more notable attributes that could be gleaned from Saturday’s Catamount win was the dedication put in by WCU in terms of being a tougher, more edgy team. Western Carolina was the right kind of physical, keeping its emotions in check and doing so without going over the line.
“We want to be team that’s physical but doesn’t cross that line, but we want to be a team that gets right up to that line,” Gray said. “The thing about it though is you want to play physical, but you have to keep your head and stay disciplined, and I thought we did a good job of that today.”
“I was pleased that we held them to 34.6% shooting in the second half. That’s a high-level offensive basketball team we just played so to do that definitely means something and we’re taking the right steps in the right direction.
Bob Richey searching for answers:
There’s always the other sidelines, and while Gray was pleased to see his Cats respond as they did, for Furman head coach Bob Richey, he’s looking for answers as to how to get his team to respond with some consistency.
After seeing his Paladins string together three pretty good halves of basketball in a win over VMI and taking a 41-38 lead to the half against the Catamounts, the Paladins took a noticeable step back on Saturday.
“We didn’t play with the right spirit tonight,” Furman head coach Bob Richey said. “We were ahead by nine twice at different points in the game and we did not make the plays necessary to continue to push the margin but instead we got comfortable and we came off of shooters and we came out of gaps and didn’t guard the ball and they basically scrapped a lot of their offense and just started driving us,” Richey added.
“Give them credit…they played really well..They basically went to five out offense and started dribble driving us.”
Furman will look to figure things out Wednesday night when the Paladins return to Timmons Arena to host The Citadel in a 7 p.m. contest. Western Carolina returns to the hardwood on Wednesday night traveling to Johnson City to take on a suddenly upstart East Tennessee State team in Freedom Hall, with tip-off set for 7 p.m.
For a full recap of Saturday’s action, stay tuned in the coming week to mid-major madness for a full recap of the opening week of league play in the SoCon.