Furman survives feisty Mercer in regular season home finale

Paladins play for a share of SoCon title and No. 1 seed in the SoCon Tournament Saturday at Samford

Jalen Slawson (27 pts) and JP Pegues (18 pts) combined for 45 of Furman’s 70 points, as the Paladins held off Mercer for their 17th-straight win in the series, capturing a 70-67 win over the Bears in a key Southern Conference battle Wednesday night at Timmons Arena.

The win saw the Paladins eclipse last season’s win total, as Furman improved to 23-7 overall and 14-3 in Southern Conference action, while the Bears fell to 12-18 overall and 5-12 in league play. The 23rd win by the Paladins marks the sixth time the program has reached that win total in a season, including having done so in five of the past seven seasons. The win was also the 111th in the careers of both fifth-year seniors Jalen Slawson and Mike Bothwell, tying former teammate Alex Hunter (2017-22) for the program record for all-time wins in a career.

The win sets up what will be a de facto Southern Conference championship game to determine the No. 1 seed for the SoCon Tournament Saturday in Birmingham with Samford at the Pete Hanna Center, with tip-off set for 2 p.m. EST. The Bulldogs gained at least a share of the regular-season title with their 75-70 win at Chattanooga, improving to 21-9 overall and 15-2 in Southern Conference play.

With a win over Samford, the Paladins would garner the No. 1 seed for the Southern Conference Tournament by virtue of Furman’s 91-84 overtime win over the Bulldogs back on Jan. 25. The Bulldogs have won 15-straight games against Southern Conference foes at the Pete Hanna Center. A win by the Bulldogs would give the Bulldogs the SoCon regular-season title outright. In addition to being the No. 1 seed in the upcoming conference tournament, Saturday’s winner also gets the auto bid to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) should that team not follow through and win the tournament in Asheville.

While Furman plays for a piece of the Southern Conference regular-season title and No. 1 overall seed in Asheville Saturday in Birmingham, Mercer’s loss at Furman—its fourth in succession—means the Bears are now locked into one of the two play-in games on Friday evening for a third-consecutive season. The Bears will finish either No. 8 or No. 9 in the league standings, which will be decided when the two play in the regular-season finale in Macon this coming Saturday. The two will then turn around and play one another in the No. 8 vs. No. 9 game in Asheville next Friday, with tip-off for that contest set for 5 p.m. EST.

The 27 points by Slawson were a season-high, eclipsing the 26-point, 11-rebound performance he had against Samford earlier this season in what was an overtime win in Greenville. It was also Slawson’s 16th-straight double-figure scoring performance this season. He finished the night connecting on 7-of-10 shots from the field, which included an impressive 3-for-4 effort from three-point land. The senior from Summerville, S.C.,  also connected on 10-of-16 shots from the charity stripe. In addition to his season-high point total, Slawson also added seven rebounds, two blocks and a steal.

Pegues finished with his 18 points on 5-of-11 shooting from the field and 1-for-3 from long range. He finished the night 7-of-10 from the free throw line. In addition to his 18 points, the sophomore point guard added five assists, three rebounds, one steal and a block.

Pegues scored Furman’s final seven points from the field, coming up huge in the clutch for the Paladins, which is evidence of his evolution as a player and how he has developed into one of the best point guards in the Southern Conference after having come into the season having to essentially learn a new position and replace the legendary Alex Hunter at the same time. Without Pegues’ confidence and ability late in the game, Furman probably doesn’t emerge victorious for a 17th-straight time over the Bears.

“I decided to be aggressive as I should be towards the end of the game…I kinda felt a little bit disrespected to be honest because they were picking me up right at half court and me…myself I feel like I am one of the fastest guards in the league and I just decided to make an aggressive move and I ended up making the right play,” Furman point guard J.P. Pegues said of his late-game performance.

Mercer, which lost its eighth game of the season decided by three points or less, placed four players in double figures in the contest. Shawn Walker Jr. led the Bears the quartet of double-figure scorers, as he posted 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting from the field and 2-for-3 from three-point range and was also 3-for-4 from the charity stripe. Walker, who was one of two Bears to foul out late in the contest, added six rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block to scoring total.

In addition to Walker Jr., Jah Quinones came off the bench to add 12 points for the Bears, while Luis Hurtado Jr. and Jayln McCreary chipped in with 10 points apiece.

The Paladins finished the night connecting on 45.7% (21-of-46) from the field, struggling from three-point range, as the Paladins knocked down just 27.8% (5-of-18) from three-point range in the game.  Furman shot better in the opening half of play, connecting on 50% (14-of-28) in the opening frame, however, committed 11 of its 14 turnovers in the opening frame. The Paladins were also 4-for-13 from three-point range in the first half, attempting only five three-point shots in the second half.

The game was far from pretty offensively for the Paladins, who finished the night 13 points below their season scoring average as a team, however, the Paladins were especially aggressive offensively in the second half, as the Paladins shot 33 of their 35 foul shots in the second half.

All told, the Paladins finished the night going 23-of-35 from the foul line for a 66.7% shooting clip from the charity stripe.  The Paladins ended up out-scoring the Bears 23-10 from the free throw line, attempting 21 more free throws (35-14). Mercer connected on 10-of-14 charity shots in the contest for a 71.4% clip at the line, attempting 12 of its 14 free throws in the second half. Furman’s performance from the charity stripe in the second half helped off-set an 11:30 stretch in which the Paladins went without scoring from the field.

Mercer finished the contest by connecting on 44.8% (26-of-58) from the field for the game and shot 29.4% (5-for-17) from three-point range in the loss.

If you were to only glance at the game-ending stats sheet, it would seem to indicate that the Bears had snapped their losing streak, which dates back to 2016, against the Paladins. Mercer finished the game holding advantages in total rebounds (36-31), points in the paint (36-30), and bench points (30-4). The Paladins held advantages in total assists (11-10), points from turnovers (20-14) and second-chance points (14-12). The two teams ended up tied in fast-break points (4-4).

How It Happened:                                               

At times Tuesday night, the basketball game between Furman and Mercer looked more like a bar fight than an actual athletic competition, and that’s just how Greg Gary’s Bears wanted the game to look. Mercer thrives on their physical play, and as the Bears found themselves right in the game late in the second half, which only seemed to add to their confidence, which had already been brimming since whittling away a Paladin 12-point lead to just four as the two teams entered the halftime locker room, with the Paladins holding a 33-29 lead.

Furman looked in a hurry much of the first half of play, and for much of the opening frame, looked like a team playing an early November non-conference game rather than a key conference game in late February, in which a win ensured a chance to play for a share of the regular-season title in the finale on Saturday.

The Paladins committed 11 of their 14 turnovers in the opening half, which negated what had been a pretty good shooting half for Bob Richey’s club, as the Paladins knocked down 50% (14-of-28) of their shots in the opening half of play alone. When Jalen Slawson connected on his third three of the opening half, the Paladins were cooking with gas, leading 25-13 with 8:24 remaining in the opening half of play.

However, over the past three games, teams have been able to figure out how to slow the Paladins prolific offense down, and that is exactly what Mercer would begin to do over the remainder of the opening stanza, limiting the Paladins to just eight points in the final eight minutes of the half, while the Bears double that total by scoring 16 in that same final stretch.

Jayln McCreary scored four-straight points to get the Bears back to within eight points before JP Pegues threw down a tomahawk dunk on the other end, putting the Paladins back up double digits heading with 5:23 remaining in the half. Over the next four minutes, the margin stayed at 8-10 points over the next four minutes. After Garrett Hien’s layup gave Furman a 33-23 lead with 1:34 remaining, it looked as if Furman might be able to take a double-digit lead into the half.

However, following one of Furman’s 11 first-half turnovers, in which Carter Whitt had the ball stolen away and Luis Hurtado Jr. knocked down a three to get the Bears to within four. After a missed three by Marcus Foster was followed by a Mercer turnover, Furman called timeout to set up a play to close the half with 25 seconds remaining.

However, Pegues’ alley-oop pass intended for Jalen Slawson was underthrown and plucked out of the air by Jah Quinones and it led to a transition opportunity the other way, and the ball ended up in the hands of Shawn Walker Jr. at the left elbow and he connected on a high-arching three as time expired, giving the Bears all the momentum heading to the break, as the Bears had closed the margin to just four.

In the second half, the Bears scored the first four points out of the locker room, getting a pair of made foul shots by Walker after a foul by Hien and following Slawson’s first missed shot of the game and only missed three-pointer, Jalyn McCreary converted a layup after a perfect high-low action on the other end, tying the game, 33-33, with 18:21 left.

Hien converted a pair of layups to give the Paladins their first four points of the half, and Mercer answered both Hien’s layups with a McCreary layup and a Walker layup. Tied at 37-37, Slawson’s layup in transition with 15:18 remaining would be last field goal for the Paladins until the 3:48 mark. Slawson’s layup gave Furman the 39-37 lead.

Despite not scoring from the field for 11:30 of game action, the Paladins never allowed the Bears to take the lead, and their aggression offensively allowed the Paladins to keep maintain a 2–5-point lead for a majority of that span. In fact, during that 11-plus minute span, the Paladins managed to shoot 19 free throws during that span, converting 15 of them. That kept the Paladins in the lead, and though the Bears tied the game twice during that span, the Bears were never able to take the lead.

Slawson was fouled and converted a layup with 3:48 remaining to end the scoring drought. After his free throw completed the three-point play the old-fashioned way gave Furman a 56-51 lead, Furman’s Ben VanderWal fouled on the other end and Quinones went to the line for two free throws. He connected on both ends of the one-and-one bonus opportunity to get the Bears back to within one possession, at 56-53. Slawson was fouled in the act of shooting, and he hit both foul shots to give the Paladins a five-point lead once again, at 58-53, with 3:23 remaining.

On the ensuing Mercer possession, the ball found its way to Michael Zanoni in the corner, and he shot a three as time expired on the shot clock, however, despite the missing the shot, Zanoni was bailed out after he was fouled by Marcus Foster, sending him to the line for three free throws. Zanoni calmly knocked down all three free throws to get the Bears back to within two, at 58-56, with 3:03 remaining.

On the next Furman possession, Pegues connected on arguably the biggest shot of the night for the Paladins, as his right elbow three allowed the Paladins to assume the 61-56 lead with 2:45. It would be the first three of what would turn out to be seven-straight points for the sophomore point guard.

Hurtado Jr. converted a second-chance layup for the Bears to get Mercer back to within three, but Pegues used his speed and quickness with the ball on the other end to knife through the Bears defense to once again put the Paladins back up five.

Just like ETSU in Sunday night’s Furman win, however, the Bears weren’t going to go away easily, as the Bears were fighting to stay alive for a top six seed in the upcoming Southern Conference Tournament in Asheville. After Walker was fouled by Foster, he knocked down one of his two foul shots to make it a four point margin, at 63-59.

Pegues was not relenting, and capped his scoring flurry with another smooth, driving layup to make put the Paladins up six, 65-59, with 46 seconds remaining. Quinones drove the lane and converted a layup and after the made layup, the Bears picked up full-court pressure, forcing Furman’s VanderWal to lose the ball out of bounds with 34 seconds remaining. Quinones drove hard and converted a layup off the right side to get Mercer right back within two, at 65-63, with 25 seconds remaining.

The Bears then fouled Mike Bothwell on the ensuing inbounds play. He converted both of the 10-foul bonus free throws to put the Paladins back up two possessions, at 67-63, however, the Bears got the ball quickly to the forecourt, and Walker drove in for a quick layup to make it a 67-65 contest with 12 seconds remaining.

Slawson was fouled immediately with 11 seconds remaining. McCreary’s foul was his fifth personal. After Slawson missed the first free throw, he would connect on the second to make it a 68-65 Paladin lead. Mercer took a timeout, and then instead of setting up a play to free up a potential game-tying three-pointer, Hurtado was allowed to drive in for an uncontested layup with 4.5 seconds remaining. A quick-thinking Slawson lobbed a perfect long pass down the floor to Marcus Foster down the floor, allowing Furman to run three precious seconds off the clock before being fouled with 0.9 seconds remaining. With Furman leading 68-67, Foster made both free throws to close out the 70-67 win for the Paladins.


–Furman claimed its 176th overall win and its 102nd SoCon win since the start of the 2015-16 season.

–Furman improved to 97-16 and 56-8 in SoCon games at Timmons Arena since the start of the 2015-16 season. The Paladins finish out the regular season with a 14-2 record at home, including an 8-1 mark against SoCon competition.

–Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson recorded their 111th win as Paladin players. That matches Alex Hunter’s 111 victories for a school standard, which he was a part of during his five years (2017-22) as a Paladin player.

Post-Game Press Conference:

Furman head coach Bob Richey
Furman senior forward Jalen Slawson (left)/sophomore point guard J.P. Pegues (right)

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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