The Day, Date and Time: Saturday, Feb. 10, 2023, 2 p.m. (Nextstar SoCon Game of the Week)
The Game: Western Carolina (14-12, 7-6 SoCon) at Furman (20-6, 11-2 SoCon)
The Venue and Location: Timmons Arena (2,500)/Greenville, S.C.
The Coaches: Furman-Bob Richey (131-52, 6th yr)/Western Carolina-Justin Gray (25-33, 2nd yr)
The Series: 83rd meeting/Furman leads 52-30
Last Time They Met: Western Carolina 79, Furman 67 (Dec. 31, 2022/Cullowhee, N.C.)
Furman puts its seven-game winning streak on the line against one of the two teams it dropped a Southern Conference game to this season, as Western Carolina pays a visit to Timmons Arena for a 2 p.m. contest on Saturday afternoon. The Paladins took down VMI, 94-63, to capture their seventh-straight win and their sixth-straight win on the road–the longest SoCon road winning streak since the 1973-74 campaign for the Paladins.
In the only other meeting this season, Western Carolina was able to overcome a halftime deficit to post a 79-67 win over the Paladins. The Catamounts are the only team that has trailed Furman at the break and have come from behind to get the win. Interestingly, after that early Southern Conference loss for the Paladins, they have played pretty good basketball ever since. The Paladins seemingly got the early message delivered by the Catamounts, as Furman has won 10 of its last 11 games and are one of only two teams to have held the Paladins to less than 70 points since.
Western Carolina’s amazing scoring night in Spartanburg
The Catamounts put together one of their most remarkable offensive nights of the season to get an important Southern Conference win just up the road at Wofford in a midweek battle on Wednesday night. What transpired over about a 2.5-hour span at the Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium was a game that could rival any played in the Southern Conference this season.
The Catamounts had a pair of guards combine for 77 points, with Tre Jackson posting a season-high 47 points–the second most by a Division I player this season and seventh-most by a player in WCU history–while Vonterius Woolbright swished home the go-ahead three-pointer for the Catamounts, and finished with a career-high 30 points, as Western Carolina came up with a huge Southern Conference road win. Jackson finished the contest against the Terriers connecting on 14-of-21 shots from the field, including going 8-of-15 from beyond the arch. He was a perfect 11-of-11 from the charity stripe. Additionally, Jackson added three rebounds and two steals to round out his overall stat line for the evening.
Woolbright finished his evening against the Terriers notching a double-double of 30 points and 13 rebounds. He got his 30 points by connecting on 12-of-26 shots from the field and was 6-of-7 from the free throw line. Woolbright shot only once from beyond the arch against the Terriers, missing his lone attempt.
Rounding out the double-figure scorers for Western Carolina in the win over the Terriers was Russell Jones Jr., who posted 11 points on 3-of-11 shooting from the field, including going 3-for-10 from three-point range. He was also 2-for-4 from the charity stripe. Over the duration of the 50 minutes of basketball played at the Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium, the Catamounts finished out the contest shooting the ball at a 42.1% (32-of-76) from the field, which included a 35.5% (11-of-31) from three-point land in the key road win. The overtime win saw the Catamounts remain perfect in games of that sort under second-year head coach Justin Gray, as the Catamounts improved to 6-0 in OT games over the past couple of seasons.
Furman’s defensive assignment is a difficult one
The Catamounts have a backcourt trio as good as any in mid-major basketball, with Tre Jackson (15.3 PPG, 3.8 RPG), Vonterius Woolbright (14.9 PPG, 7.4 RPG) and Russell Jones Jr (10.0 PPG, 2.7 RPG) offering opponents three-headed scoring monster to try and stop or as is most often the case, figure out how to slow down.
The trio is averaging right at about 40 of WCU’s 75.8 PPG so far this season. When the Catamounts were successful over the Paladins back on Dec. 31, 2022, the Catamounts scored 79 points, with Jackson (17 pts), Russell Jones Jr. (15 pts) and Vonterius Woolbright (14 pts) contributing 46 points. It’s probably difficult to take any one of the three completely away for the entirety of the game, however, the goal for head coach Bob Richey’s club on Saturday afternoon will be to hold the trio collectively below 40 combined points. If the Paladins do that, they stand an excellent chance to avenge that 12-point loss on the road back in late December.
Jackson enters the contest as one of the league’s most prolific perimeter threats, following in a lineage of some truly great guards in WCU history that could fill it up from downtown. Guys like Anquell McCollum, Trey Sumler, Kevin Martin, Ronnie Carr, and Terry Boyd just to name a few.
Jackson’s 47-point effort saw him score 24 of those points on three-point field goals, and that effort marked a school-record for points in a game during the Catamounts’ Division I history, eclipsing Kevin Martin’s 46-point effort in a 77-72 loss to Coastal Carolina back on Nov. 22, 2002.
Only UNC Asheville’s Drew Pember, who dropped 48 points in an 88-80 overtime win over Presbyterian earlier this season, ranks as a higher scoring total in Division I basketball this season. Jackson’s 80 three-pointers rank him second in threes made in the SoCon this season, while his 35 made in league play are the most in the SoCon.
The Catamount guard trio is among the toughest defensive assignments in the Southern Conference. They help fuel a Catamount offensive attack that ranks fourth in the Southern Conference in scoring offense (75.1 PPG) and fourth in three-point field goals made (224 three-point FGs/9.0 PG). Though the Catamounts have made a lot of threes, they haven’t shot them all that well over the duration of the season, ranking sixth in the league in three-point field goal percentage (33.9%). That Catamounts have actually shot the three-point ball at a lower percentage in league games this season, as the Catamounts rank ninth in three-point field goal percentage (31.2%) in league games.
As far as a shooting team in general, in all games this season, the Catamounts have been an interesting follow this season because they haven’t been a team that has shot the ball particularly well overall either. The Catamounts rank ninth out of the 10-team SoCon in overall field goal percentage (43.2%) this season. The Catamounts do rank a little better in conference only games in terms of field goal percentage offense, ranking sixth in the SoCon in field goal percentage (42.5%)
That will be an especially tall task, but a manageable one considering how the Paladins were able to take away UNCG’s backcourt scoring total the second time around in a 12-point road win over the Spartans, which helped avenge an 88-80 overtime home loss to UNCG a couple of weeks earlier. The Paladins essentially halved the 48 points scored collectively by UNCG in the 88-80 loss in Greenville, holding UNCG to a collective 24 points in the meeting at the Greensboro Coliseum, taking a 69-57 win over the Spartans.
A major part of that defensive effort was point guard JP Pegues, who helped the collective defensive effort shave 20 points off of Keyshaun Langley’s total from the first meeting, as he was held to four points in the second meeting after posting a game-high 24 points in UNCG’s win at Furman a couple of weeks earlier.
One of the players that really affected the first meeting between the two was Bernard Pelote, who came off the bench to add 14 points. The 6-8 forward definitely caused some matchup problems for the Paladins when he was in the lineup.
If Furman can find a way to limit at least one of the three in WCU’s outstanding backcourt, it stands a good chance to win its eighth-straight game, which would account for its longest winning streak since starting the 2018-19 campaign by winning 12-straight en route to the program’s first-ever Top 25 ranking. If not, it could be a long afternoon at Timmons Arena.
While the Catamount backcourt is outstanding, Morehead State transfer Tyzhaun Claude has been outstanding for Western Carolina all season for the Catamounts. Though he only scored seven points in the first game with Furman this season, he has been among the top SoCon newcomers this season, averaging a team-best 15.4 PPG and 8.5 RPG. He did not play in the game against Wofford last time out due to an ankle issue. He should be back in the lineup for the Catamounts against the Paladins on Saturday.
Furman’s backcourt is among the best in mid-major hoops
Furman has two of the top players in the Southern Conference in its backcourt–point guard JP Pegues and veteran fifth-year guard Mike Bothwell. Pegues has been huge for the Paladins in both ends of the floor during this current seven-game winning streak.
In fact, it was Pegues that has not only been a leader on the floor, but off it as well, with the turning point coming following that loss in Cullowhee. His absence from the game was notable in Furman’s lone league loss since–an 88-80 overtime home setback to UNCG–as Pegues missed the final four minutes as well as overtime with leg cramps.
Pegues has really come on since the calendar flipped to 2023. Highlighting his play of late was a career-best 26-point, eight rebound effort in a 96-82 win at Wofford back on Jan. 22.
He’s started all 26 games for the Paladins this season, and he had some incredibly huge shoes to fill. He came into the season tasked with replacing arguably the school’s best point guard in its rich history, as he had to replace Alex Hunter, who started 122 of his 156 career games.
However, Pegues has come into his own as the season has progressed, which includes averaging 10.7 PPG, 3.7 RPG, and 4.0 APG, while shooting 36.2% from long range. Pegues is tied for 10th in the SoCon in three-pointers made (48/1.9) this season. He has scored in double-figures in seven-straight games, which coincides with the current seven-game winning streak.
The Paladins are having one of their most offensively efficient seasons in program history, ranking 10th nationally in scoring offense (82.4 PPG), which is the highest scoring average for a Furman basketball team since the 1978-79 season. Pegues has been the main sparkplug for a Paladin offensive engine that also ranks fourth nationally in assists per game (18.0), ninth in effective field goal percentage (0.568), 12th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.53), 12th in three-pointers per game (9.9), and 18th in field goal percentage (48.6%).
Adding to that outstanding backcourt are Mike Bothwell, who is a candidate for the Lou Henson Award, which is given to the top player in all of mid-major basketball every season. His 18.5 PPG scoring average is second to only Jake Stephens in scoring average this season. Bothwell ranks seventh in school history in scoring, having totaled 1,860 points in his Paladin career.
Marcus Foster, who failed to score in the first matchup between the two, has the potential to score points in bunches, as evidenced by strong performances shortly after the loss to the Catamounts, posting 21 and 25 points in back-to-back road wins over East Tennessee State and Mercer.
Timmons Arena has been a dungeon of doom for opponents
Since the start of the 2015-16, the Furman Paladins have been nearly unbeatable inside the friendly confines of Timmons Arena. In fact, Furman has posted an impressive 94-16 mark inside the friendly confines, which includes a 53-8 mark against Southern Conference competition. The Paladins are 43-5 overall and 22-3 against Southern Conference competition over the past three seasons at Timmons Arena. Furman hasn’t set foot in the facility for a game in 10 days, capturing a 79-58 win over Chattanooga back on Feb. 1. The last time Western Carolina came away with a victory from Timmons Arena was during the 2012-13 season, which was Jeff Jackson’s final campaign as the head coach of Furman.
The last time it happened…
While it’s been some of the best of times for Furman basketball over the past eight years, the last time the Catamounts claimed a win in Timmons Arena times were light years different.
In fact, the 2012-13 campaign would see the Paladins muster only seven total victories. The Paladins would finish the season with just a 7-24 overall record. By contrast, it was a Catamount team, which led by
On Nov. 28, 2012, the Catamounts came to Timmons Arena and went home with a 79-65 win. The Catamounts were powered by star guard Trey Sumler, who poured in 24 points, while sharp-shooting guard Tom Tankelewicz added 17, as the Catamounts claimed a 14-point win.
While those times were tough for Paladin basketball, the Larry Hunter led Catamounts would go on to finish the 2012-13 season with a 14-19 record, which included an even 9-9 mark in Southern Conference action. The Catamounts would eventually bow out of the tournament with a 78-70 semifinal loss to eventual runner-up College of Charleston.
Jalen Slawson (15.5 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.6 BPG, 1.7 SPG) is making a strong case to be given a serious look for Southern Conference Player of the Year honors. Should he do that, he’d be the first since Devin Sibley completed that same feat for the Paladins back in theb 2016-17 season, when the Paladins finished in a three-way tie for the SoCon regular-season title, when Devin Sibley became the second Paladin in as many seasons to claim the league’s highest individual honor.
Slawson was recently named the Southern Conference Player of the Month for the month of January, and for the first week of the month of February, Slawson was named the Southern Conference Player of the Week. He enters Saturday’s showdown with the Catamounts having posted 12-straight games in double figures. His current string of double-digit scoring performances started with a 16-point, seven-rebound effort in the 12-point loss at Western Carolina.
Slawson has keyed two major determining factors as to why Furman finds itself in a position to win an outright Southern Conference title. He’s been a major reason the Paladins has seen an uptick on the boards, as well as collectively on the defensive end of the floor in its current seven-game winning streak.
The Paladins have held opponents to 68.6 PPG, as well as limiting foes to shooting just 43.8% from the floor and 31.9% from three-point range over the past seven games. Furman has also fashioned a +6.3-rebounding margin during the stretch.
Slawson, who is the reigning SoCon Defensive Player of the Year, has a total of seven of his 17-career double-doubles this season, with the most recent of those coming in the Paladins’ last home win over Chattanooga.
In league games this season, Slawson ranks fourth in scoring average (16.4 PPG), tied for third in rebound average (7.5 RPG), seventh in total field goal percentage (53.4%), fourth in assists (3.7 APG), seventh in free throw percentage (81.3%), fifth in steals (1.5 SPG), fifth in offensive rebound average (2.2), fourth in defensive rebound average (5.3) and second in blocks (1.5 BPG).