When Furman drove away from Cullowhee following its loss to Western Carolina, it did so in a fog on the final day of the calendar year in 2022.
After getting a grand total of two bench points in last Saturday night’s 12-point Southern Conference loss at Western Carolina, the Paladins got 39 on Wednesday night, which included a combined 33 from Alex Williams (19 pts) and Ben VanderWal (14 pts), with both notching career highs, while senior guard Mike Bothwell led all scorers with 27 points, as the Paladins won its 10th-straight in the series with a decisive 97-72 Southern Conference win over The Citadel Wednesday night at Timmons Arena. The win also marked Furman’s 20th out of its last 22 against SoCon foes inside the friendly confines, dating back to the start of the 2019-20 campaign.
Furman almost seemed gleeful for the opportunity to right its wrongs of its final act of 2022 in Cullowhee Wednesday night against its most hated and oldest SoCon rival, and with the whipping and abusive precision with which it delivered its first verdict of 2023 against the Bulldogs, a real life application would have not only drawn the attention of an extreme animal rights group such as the People’s Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), but also other mundane ones, like the American Humane Association.
Furman, which was perfect from the field to start the for over seven minutes, improves to 11-5 overall and 2-1 in league play, while the Bulldogs dropped what was their second-straight league contest and fell to 6-9 overall and 1-2 in SoCon action.
For as much as Furman did wrong last Saturday, it got right in a big way Wednesday night. Along with the aforementioned production from its bench, the Paladins were relentless defensively early on, with the Bulldogs not able to find the mark early, and for potentially the first time all year, the Paladin defense was able to start the game with a kill, which is simply getting three-straight empty possessions from the opposition.
The strong defensive start calmed Paladin shooters on the other end, and from the outset, Furman—not its opposition—set the rules of engagement. Furman, maybe some fair and some unfair, has drawn a much more of a microscopic focus on it this season, which is usually case when a team heads into a season as the consensus favorite to win its league.
The part that is probably unfair is increasing the focus as a result of how last season ended, and that the media—me included—has created a narrative that doesn’t exist, which is trying to extend last season into this one when the two teams are different all together, despite the fact the Furman retuned three of its five starters from last season. Almost every high-achieving team in any sport often holds even itself to an unfair realistic standard, as well, so it’s not just a media thing.
Former Davidson head coach drove this point for me at the 2008 Southern Conference Tournament when he said—and I paraphrase—-striving for perfection that is unachievable in the game of basketball is always the goal even though a team can’t realistically make every shot. In case you might have missed it, that Davidson team went on to be one of the best in Southern Conference history, led by some guy named Steph Curry.
Furman had that perfect game going for 7:22 until Alex Williams missed Furman’s first shot of the game with 12:38 remaining in the opening half, and though it would not play the perfect game, the start to the game rivals any the Paladins have had in any of their previous 15 games of the 2022-23 season, with only maybe the start against Stephen F. Austin and half to start the game being a better one than the effort and consistency Furman offered in the opening half.
Furman allowed 72 points, which if you look at The Citadel’s points surrendered (8th in the SoCon) the in comparison to their field goal percentage defense (3rd in the SoCon) entering the matchup, you understand they play high-possession games and by nature that leads to more scoring, and points allowed aren’t always the best indicator.
The 88-87 Big 12 road win by TCU over Baylor is a solid example of this point. The Horned Frogs entered the matchup as one of the top defensive teams in college basketball and ranked second in the Big 12 in scoring defense (61.2 PPG) and third in field goal percentage defense (39%). While the 87 points surrendered was high, the 44.5% field goal percentage was a solid defensive effort, and was more a result of a lot of possessions and pace of play than bad defense.
While Furman’s defensive performance still needs plenty of improvement, there were some really encouraging things that could be gleaned from Wednesday night’s triumph against the Bulldogs on the defensive end of the floor. Furman held the Bulldogs to just 40.7% (24-of-59) shooting from the field for the contest en route to the win.
The Paladins were also especially stingy in terms of holding the Bulldogs at bay from long range, as Furman held the visitors to just 33.3% (6-of-18) shooting effort from three-point range in the win. That defensive performance, which for a team that came in ranking dead last in the SoCon at defending the perimeter was highlighted by the fact that the ‘Dins had the Bulldogs shooting blanks from long-range in the opening 20 minutes of action, holding The Citadel to an 0-for-6 effort from three.
Bothwell finished with his 27 points coming on a 10-of-14 shooting performance from the field, including a 4-for-7 effort from three-point range. The senior guard from Cleveland Heights, OH., was also 3-for-3 from the charity stripe. He added six assist and five rebounds to his overall stat line in the win.
Joining him in double figures were four other ‘Dins, with Alex Williams adding his 19 off the bench on 6-of-10 from the field, including 2-of-5 from three, while capping off his best performance from the line of his Paladin career, swishing through all five of his charity efforts.
A majority of Ben VanderWal’s career-high 14 points came from beyond the three-point line, as he landed all four of his bombs launched and went 2-for-2 from the stripe. The freshman’s seven boards were tied for team-high honors with Garrett Hien, who also collected seven Bulldog caroms.
Slawson was saddled with foul trouble for much of the game in a contest that featured a total of 39 total fouls, with the Paladins committing 23 of them. The two teams combined to shoot 54 foul shots. Slawson scored a majority of his 11 that way, connecting on 7-of-8 of his. He was also 2-of-4 from the field, while dishing out a team-high seven assists and grabbing four boards in his 17:14 of floor action.
Foster, who went scoreless in Saturday’s loss at WCU, started 2023 off in strong fashion, as he rounded out the Paladins in double figures with 10 points. It was his 10th double-figure scoring effort of the season and marked his third such performance in his past four games.
The Citadel was led by Stephen Clark, who posted 18 points, three rebounds and dished out a pair of assists before fouling out of the contest late, as he went 6-for-10 from the field and 6-for-11 from the charity stripe.
The only other Bulldog to finish in double figures was Dylan Engler, who came off the bench to post 11 points.
For the game, the Paladins managed to knock down 58.2% (32-of-55) of their shots from the field and were 46.2% (12-of-26) from three. Furman also finished 21-of-24 from the line.
The Citadel, meanwhile, finished connecting at a 40.7% (24-of-59) clip from the field and connected on 33.3% (6-of-18) from long range. In contrast to Furman’s performance at the line, The Citadel has some work to do, as the Bulldogs missed 12 of their 30 charity shots, finishing 18-of-30 from the stripe.
The Paladins finished with advantages in total rebounds (40-26), total assists (23-10), points from turnovers (14-7), bench points (39-30), points in the paint (40-28) and fast break points (6-2). The Citadel owned a slight edge in second-chance points (4-3).
How It Happened:
In contrast to some slow starts to games this season, Wednesday night’s contest against The Citadel was anything but for Furman, which turned up the tempo and played near-flawless basketball for over seven minutes to start the game, knocking down its first seven shots from the field over the first 7:22 of the game, as the Paladins took a 21-6 lead following an Alex Williams three-pointer off a beautiful feed to the corner from Mike Bothwell, staking Furman to what would be its largest lead of the opening half at 15 points prompting an Ed Conroy timeout.
The Paladins would push the lead to 15 once more in the half a little over a minute later when Foster converted a layup in the paint following one of The Citadel’s eight turnovers.
The Bulldogs would ultimately chip away at the Furman lead in the middle portions of the opening half, as the game settled into a slog, having been slowed by excessive fouls on both sides, allowing the Bulldogs to slow the pace and get back into the game. That’s a phrase that seems somewhat of a foreign language to Bulldog fans, who embraced the pace for seven seasons under Duggar Baucom, and needed to slow Furman’s pace in some way to get back into Wednesday’s SoCon battle between the league’s two-oldest rivals.
The Bulldogs would whittle away at Furman’s first-half advantage to just six with 6:24 remaining in the opening stanza following rare occurrence of consecutive successful free throws from David Maynard, trimming the Paladin advantage to 30-24.
The Paladins closed the half on a 13-6 run, however, sparked by a three-pointer from Bothwell following Maynard’s two charity shots, and fittingly, it would be Bothwell’s two foul shots with 39 seconds left that would end Furman’s mini-run to stake the Paladins to their 13-point, 43-30, halftime advantage. Bothwell had posted 17 points in the opening half of play.
In the second half, The Citadel would threaten to get inside 10 points once again when Jackson Price knocked down 1-of-2 foul shots with 16:42 left, trimming Furman’s lead to 49-39.
However, Ben VanderWal’s back-to-back triples would ignite what would be a 23-4 Furman run to essentially put all thoughts of a road rally by the Bulldogs to bed. Furman’s lead reached its apex 29 points, with another of VanderWal’s four threes in the contest, as his left elbow offering just in front of Bob Richey with 10:05 left pushed the Paladin advantage to 72-43 and prompted an emphatic, yet dejected timeout from Conroy.
Notes from the win over the Bulldogs:
–Furman’s win to open 2023 represents the exact halfway-point of the 2022-23 regular-season. After starting 1-1 in SoCon play a year ago, the Paladins won eight of their next nine in league action.
—10th-straight win in the series for Furman over The Citadel
—Furman improved to 92-15 overall and 51-7 against SoCon since the start of the 2015-16 season at Timmons Arena
—Furman has won its last three games against The Citadel by an average of 26.3 PPG
—For the ninth time in 16 games this season, Furman scored 80 or more points in a game and is 8-1 in those contests…By contrast, Furman posted 15 games with 80 or more points scored in its 34 games during the 2021-22 campaign. The Paladins were 13-2 when scoring 80 or more last season.
—The 97 points against The Citadel marked the most points scored against a Division I foe this season.
—Furman has won nine of its 11 games this season by double-digit margins, with none of its eight victories at Timmons Arena having been single-digit victories.
Postgame Press Conference:
Head Coach Bob Richey:
Up Next: Jan. 7, 2023/at East Tennessee State, 4 p.m.