Furman wins fourth-straight over Wofford in front of record crowd

Greenville’s Team and a changing narrative

Furman’s 80-67 win over Wofford in its annual “Weekend at the Well” Southern Conference game had many story lines and many angles, which could be written about. But I felt like there was one overwhelming story that had to be driven home, and one that I think head coach Bob Richey and his team have earned to be written about them.

The win marked Furman’s sixth-straight, including its fourth-straight in the series over Wofford.

The Paladins improved to 19-6 overall and 10-2 in the Southern Conference play, while the Terriers dropped to 13-12 overall and dropped to 5-7 in Southern Conference play. Both UNC Greensboro and Samford—the two teams Furman came into the first Saturday tied atop the Southern Conference standings with—remained tied with the Paladins as both were able to emerge victorious on Saturday afternoon. The Samford Bulldogs took down East Tennessee State, 73-62, at the Pete Hanna Center Saturday, while UNCG posted a 79-59 win at The Citadel, as both of the other SoCon tri-leaders improved to 10-2 to stay atop the SoCon standings.

One thing that was impossible to miss was the school-record 6,199 fans in attendance to take in the game, with a large majority wearing purple. That part is the part players and coaches on the Furman sideline earned to have written about them, as they push the program forward.

The 13-point win by the Paladins over the Terriers not only gave Furman the series sweep for a second year running, but it was also Furman’s 172nd win since the start of the 2015-16 season, as well as having been its 98th Southern Conference win. For head coach Bob Richey, it was his 130th win at the helm of the Furman basketball. It was just last season that Richey, then in his fifth season at the helm, recorded his milestone 100th win at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Furman’s early January win over Mercer last season.

If you weren’t convinced a new day had already dawned for Furman basketball, then maybe you should give it a closer examination. Much of Greenville is just now finding out something those of us who have followed or covered Southern Conference and Furman basketball since 2015 have gradually seen taking place since 2015. But what’s been missed by most is understandable.

After all, we collectively live in a state where some of the best college football at both FBS and FCS levels has been played in recent seasons, and for a state the size of South Carolina, that’s almost remarkable.

The state has begged for some college basketball recognition for quite some time. At the mid-major level, those teams that have been most successful over the better part of two decades plus have been Winthrop and College of Charleston. Wofford started trending upward in about 2008, as Young started to learn how to navigate his Terrier program in the always-tough SoCon.

Since 2015, however, Furman has been pretty fun to cover. The culture developed first by head coach Niko Medved and now being elevated under sixth-year head coach Bob Richey is one that has plenty of excitement. Without going into all the detail, Furman, which spent much of the first 15 years since the start of the new millennium in the doldrums of Southern Conference basketball, it’s been a renaissance of sorts.

For those of us who were around for the Jeff Jackson era of Furman basketball, the past eight seasons, which has had plenty more “ups” than “downs” has been a well-deserved treat after having had to endure three single-digit win seasons during his time as the head coach, damaging his team’s confidence along the way. Head coach Bob Richey, however, has seen it all. He was hired prior to Jackson’s last season in Greenville and was asked to stay on staff by Niko Medved. He and Medved would be tasked to rebuild a Furman program that had lost its way and lost its confidence.

In basketball’s version of “The Sims”, Medved and Richey went about having fun building a basketball program, and boy, have they ever. While Medved has been gone since 2017, it’s been Richey who has stuck around and put in the work to crafting a program worthy of support in Greenville, even hiring a Wofford Hall-of-Famer in the process–Tim Johnson–who has been largely responsible for Furman’s improvement on the glass.

As for me personally, I’ve enjoyed being able to witness much of what Furman has done under both Medved and Richey have done over the past eight years through my own eyes, while reading about some of it I might have somehow missed through the well-chosen words of both Scott Keeler (http://www.furmansportsreport.com/), and for the past couple of years, Monte Dutton (https://www.furmanatt.com/), and I think both would agree, the success of Greenville’s team hasn’t come over night. In fact, it’s very much a work still very much in progress.

But it’s understandable that some of that would be missed by the casual hoops fans living in the Upstate looking for a college hoops fix.

Furman’s appeal hasn’t been to its loyal fans and its loyal media, who cover them through thick and thin, but it’s been to greater Greenville at-large. The Clemson football fan looking for something do during the winter months, or the displaced South Carolina fans looking to watch any hoops that doesn’t involve the current edition of Gamecocks basketball, as Lamont Paris is in his first season as head coach at South Carolina. Paris will turn it around, but it may take patience. After all, the Paladins did what they wanted with Paris’ Gamecocks in the Charleston Classic earlier this season, defeating South Carolina 79-60 back in November.

The Palmetto State hasn’t been one that most think of when it comes to college basketball success, however, the 2022-23 season has been a pleasant surprise for fans in the Upstate and Lowcountry at least, given the successful campaigns of Furman, Clemson and College of Charleston, with both the Tigers and Cougars having spent time ranked in the AP Top 25 poll this season. That’s a place Furman found itself back in 2018-19 for the first time in school history. It also happened to be the same season of Wofford’s unprecedented success.

For a long time, Furman has been hidden while they have worked to get the program where it is. It was at a point prior to 2015, which watching the Paladins play might have involved a release form or a full psychological evaluation. Yikes.

To garner the type of crowd support Furman saw Saturday evening requires a tangible measuring stick of success to go against. A progress report if you will. That measuring stick has been I-85 rival Wofford, who dominated the SoCon hoops scene for the better part of a decade from 2009-19, and Furman had always been in the proverbial shadow.

The Paladins wanted to change the narrative of the rivalry, which had largely been dominated by Wofford prior to the arrival of current super seniors Jalen Slawson and Mike Bothwell, however, the Paladins have gradually worked to change that narrative. In fact, Furman’s four-game winning streak marks the longest winning streak in the series since a span that stretch between 2003 and ’05. Three of Furman’s four wins in this current stretch against Wofford have come by double digits.

“We don’t like those guys and they don’t like us and I am sure everyone who watched the game tonight could see that and it’s time that the narrative shifted and we let them know that this is our series and we’ve worked to get the series to this point and this is here to stay now…That’s pretty much it,” Jalen Slawson said of the Wofford series following Furman’s 13-point win.

When Slawson and Bothwell arrived at Furman as true freshmen during the 2018-19 season, the Terriers were at the peak of what had been a 10-year run of success in the league, and that campaign would see the Terriers turn in one of the most dominating runs through the SoCon in its rich history, reeling off 21-straight league wins (regular-season and tournament), as well as posting 30 wins overall at season’s end. The Terriers even became the first Southern Conference team to win a game in the NCAA Tournament since Stephen Curry’s Davidson squad in 2008, which was the same year that the Wildcats made that memorable run to the Elite Eight before losing to eventual national champion Kansas by two.

The 2018-19 season saw the Terriers cap the season with their fifth Southern Conference title in a 10-year span. An educated guess as to which loss to the Terriers was the hardest to overcome, it would probably be the 2020 SoCon Tournament loss, which saw Furman drop a 73-67 contest to Wofford in the quarterfinals. The Paladins had entered the tournament as the No. 2 overall seed and had won a school-record 15 SoCon games, while Wofford came to Asheville having lost eight-straight to close the regular-season, which slotted the defending league champions at No. 7. Wofford would become the first team since Furman in 2015 to reach the championship game after having to play on the tournament’s opening play-in round. The Terriers would run out of gas, with a 72-58 loss in the championship game to top overall seed East Tennessee State.

Since that time, the Terriers have caused the Paladins some headaches, but both Bothwell and Slawson have been around to see the Terriers have as many coaching changes as Furman has had players leave for that transfer portal, and there has been a gradual shift in the series. For Bothwell and Slawson, they have been key reasons the series has seen a shift, as well as Furman’s culture, which was tangibly evident by the largest home crowd on hand to witness a Furman basketball game in school history. Furman played to that crowd—literally—thrilling the nearly 6,200 on-hand in attendance from tip-off to buzzer. For Bothwell and Slawson, they improved to 5-5 in their respective careers against the Terriers after a 1-5 start. Not a bad turnaround at all.

The duo, which have delighted fans at the ‘Well’ with some memorable moments of their own in their respective careers, creating memories such as Slawson’s spin at mid-court off a steal and dunk on the other end in the Feb 22, 2020, 67-66, win, as well as Bothwell’s game-winning shot with in the lane with 12.1 seconds remaining in the same game, both finished in double figures in the most recent renewal of the rivalry.

Slawson, who was the SoCon’s Player of the Month, maintained his strong play of late, putting his name in the conversation to be considered for Southern Conference Player of the Year honors, as well as SoCon Defensive Player of the Year for a second-straight season, as he posted his 11th-straight double-figure scoring effort, finishing with 16 points, nine rebounds, four steals, one assist and one block. Slawson, who led the Southern Conference in steals last season, finished with four thefts for a second-straight game, as his defensive uptick in performance is a microcosm of Furman’s increased attention to detail on that end of the floor of late. For a fifth time in the current six-game winning streak, the Paladins held the opposition below 70 points.

Furman has registered 35 steals in its current six-game winning streak, which has directly to outscoring foes 91-52 in points from turnovers over that span, including outscoring the Terriers by 17 (21-4) in Saturday evening’s win. Slawson finished the game going 7-of-10 from the field, including 2-for-3 from three-point land.

Bothwell had more of a tame performance by his standards offensively, but while Wofford made it almost violent at times to try and stop him driving to the basket, the Terriers found out the Bothwell contributes in other areas and that, stopping or limiting Bothwell offensively doesn’t stop Furman.

The senior from Cleveland Heights, OH., who is another contender for SoCon Player of the Year accolades, finished with 10 points, five rebounds, two assists, and two steals. His contributions on the defensive end, which included making paint access on dribble penetration for the Wofford guards difficult to access for much of the afternoon, as well as on the offensive glass were two major reasons as to why Furman’s recent trend of success was able to remain alive and well on Saturday. Bothwell pulled down four of the team’s 12 offensive rebounds in the game.

When Bothwell or Slawson are slowed offensively, Furman is now showing its full array of offensive talent because it’s a group that has gained confidence to step up and score with regularity if called upon to do so.  That confidence, like Furman’s ultimate changing of the narrative against Wofford in the overall series, hasn’t come easy, but it has come through a gradual process. On Saturday, Alex Williams was waiting for his opportunity to show his game to the record crowd with gritty anticipation. He posted 15 points and three rebounds, helping lead a Paladin bench effort that saw it nip the Terriers, 24-22, in that particular category. Not to be overlooked were contributions of Carter Whitt (3 assists) and Ben VanderWal (8 pts), which were also key in Furman picking up its 19th win of the season.

JP Pegues continued his strong play at the point guard spot, with 13 points and seven assists, as he keyed the fast start to the game, as he dished out three of his seven assists before the first media timeout, helping Furman score the first eight points of the contest. For Pegues, it marked the seventh-straight game in which he has scored in double figures.

Wofford was led by three players in double figures, with B.J. Mack continuing to show why he’s one of the premier big men in mid-major basketball, posting 17 points and eight rebounds, while also dishing out three assists. Mack was joined by Jackson Paveletzke and Amarri Tice in double figures, as the duo posted 14 and 11 points, respectively.

The Paladins finished the contest connecting on 47.0% of its shots from the field, including connecting on 34.5% (10-for-29) from three-point land. Furman, which didn’t shoot a free throw in the opening half, finished the night 8-of-9 from the stripe to finish

Wofford finished the evening posting a better shooting percentage, connecting on 50.0% (25-of-50) its shot for the day, including shooting 38.9% (7-of-18) from three-point range. The Terriers also went 10-for-17 at the free throw line to finish at 58.8% for the evening.

The Paladins ended the game holding advantages in total rebounds (35-30), total assists (15-13), points in the paint (42-32), second-chance points (11-6), fast-break points (9-6) and bench scoring (24-22).

How It Happened:

Furman, which had been outscored 17-1 in the opening minutes of both halves in Spartanburg two weeks ago, and were outscored 10-0 before a furious Richey called timeout in last season’s game at ‘The Well’ between the same two teams, it was Furman that pressed the pedal this time, and really only was only asked a question or two in the second half, but for the most part coasted to the 80-67 win Saturday evening before the school-record home audience.

The Paladins roared early. It was Pegues up to his same things on a different Southern Conference day, which this time was a Saturday, as his three assists before the first media timeout helped the Paladins to the early 8-0 lead and then ballooned to 17-3 following a Mike Bothwell rip of Carson McCorkle, who was forced to dribble right into Bothwell’s pass by Furman’s other super senior Jalen Slawson, and it was like like feeding a slab of meat to a hungry Tiger, with Bothwell sitting there waiting for McCorkle to arrive, knowing full well his teammate had set him up for a different kind of an assist, but an assist nonetheless.

It’s that kind of cunning play that is evident in this team this year at this time. They’re getting it. Furman led 20-6 after a VanderWal left elbow triple with 11:31 left in the opening half.

From the tip-off, Furman relished the opportunity to showcase what it had been doing these past eight years, and if it had one window of opportunity, it certainly wasn’t about to let it close. That’s the way the Paladins started the game, and for most of the night, it was how it looked.

Furman increased the margin to 19–it’s largest lead of the night–following a following layup with 49 seconds remaining in the half, giving the Paladins a comfortable 42-23 lead. The Paladins took a 17-point lead to the break, with Wofford’s Amarri Tice converting a layup to get the Terriers to within 17, setting the halftime score, at 42-25 in favor of the Paladins.

In the second half, it was the Terriers, who came out the team most ready to play, as the Terriers scored a quick eight points to slice the Paladin lead to single digits for the first time since the game’s opening minutes, as Jackson Paveletzke’s triple from the left elbow capped the spurt and made it a 42-33 game just 79 seconds into the second stanza.

Furman hit back with a 10-2 run to take back command of the game, with Alex Williams’ triple from the right corner helping the Paladins match their halftime margin, as the Paladins assumed the 52-35 lead with 15:29 remaining. It went back and forth for the next 10 minutes. The chippy-ness and talking continued on the floor, and when Slawson said the two teams aren’t too fond of each other, from what I could see that’s accurate. There was also a noticeable mutual respect, too.

When Pavaletzke went into for a layup with 8:25 remaining, the outstanding, youthful guard found what out why Jalen Slawson was the reigning SoCon Defensive Player of the Year, as he glared at Paveletzke and appeared to have a message for the talented freshman guard, and by the look on Paveletzke’s face, I determined it wasn’t a compliment.

The jawing went on most of the night. It was that kind of game. The kind of game that a player like Slawson seemed to relish, as did Wofford’s Mack. It was if Slawson and Mack tabled some talking points they couldn’t get to 13 days ago in Spartanburg.

When Wofford’s Mack swished a triple from the top of the key, he couldn’t find enough Furman players to tell about it, but he opted for Slawson and maybe Alex Williams, but it was tough to tell, but definitely Slawson was in his crosshairs. It was probably a response to one Slawson’s four steals he had, with one of those coming against Mack in the first half. The three got Wofford amazingly within 10 with 4:19 remaining.

Furman didn’t have long to talk back, and Slawson and Williams combined for a play that seemingly summed up the night. It was Slawson’s defense that started a play that Williams’ hustle finished.

“I pride myself on the defensive end,” said Slawson. “I pride myself in my versatility, the ability to guard multiple positions. … My mentality doesn’t change, but it definitely starts on defense,” Slawson said of his outstanding defensive play of late.

McCorkle’s pass across the floor was intended for Mack, but Slaw’s paw deflected into the backcourt, with Mack giving chase along the sideline, however, what Mack didn’t see was a hard-charging Alex Williams chasing down the loose ball as if it were a scoop and score situation, and essentially, it was.

Williams scooped it, Mack plowed into the scorer’s table like a Mack truck, and Williams slammed the ball hard on the other end, as the crowd roared with 3:33 left. It was the moment they’d been waiting for.

The dunk got the Furman lead back to 15, at 75-60, and that momentum play essentially deflated the Terrier hopes. Furman would eventually go ahead by as many as 16 again, when Pegues converted a layup off an offensive rebound to make it 80-64, but after Paveletzke was fouled attempting a three-pointer with just 19 seconds remaining, he connected on all three foul shots to set the final margin at 13, 80-67.

The road ahead for Furman is a tough one, and despite the current run of success, nothing is ever a foregone conclusion.

Furman, at its best, can do something special, but in basketball, one bad game or case of not being ready to play–especially in the SoCon–can cost you in chasing that one bid for the NCAA Tournament. Right now at least, this team seems to not really be thinking too far ahead or too much about its ultimate goal, they’re just having fun.

Having fun is what it’s about after all, and for a really good basketball team, the excitement comes with every new moment. If I had to describe the way they are playing right now, it’s like that. Playing for the next fun moment.

Furman returns to the hardwood Wednesday night, as the Paladins will be on the road in Lexington, VA., to take on the VMI Keydets, with tip-off set for 7 p.m. Wofford will host Western Carolina in a 7 p.m. contest at the Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium.

Postgame Press Conference:

Alex Williams (left) and Jalen Slawson (right)
Furman head coach Bob Richey

Published by soconjohn

I am a lover of all things SoCon, and I have had a passion to write about, follow and tell the world about this great conference for pretty much my entire life. While I do love the SoCon, and live in the SoCon city, which is home to the Furman Paladins, have a passion for sports in general, with college football and college hoops topping the list.

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