No. 1 Furman 83, No.4 Western Carolina 80 (OT)
Recap: Despite holding as much as a 20-point second half lead, Furman nearly squandered the opportunity to make it back to the championship game and subsequently forfeit a chance to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 43 years, as Western Carolina made the penultimate stage a difficult hurdle for the Paladins to traverse, however, Furman proved to be a team “calloused” for such moments, as it was able to hold off the feisty Catamounts, 83-80, in overtime to advance to the championship game of the Ingles Southern Conference Tournament for a second-straight season.
One of the interesting storylines coming into Sunday night’s classic semifinal clash at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center, which was played before a raucous crowd fit for a championship Monday was the fact that the two teams sported a combined 70 years of NCAA Tournament drought, with Furman having not qualified for the postseason since 1980 (43 years) and Western Carolina’s last appearance in the Big Dance coming in 1996 (27 years).
With the win, Furman won its school-record 26th game and improved to 26-7 overall, while Western Carolina concluded its season with an 18-15 record. The Paladins will face Chattanooga (18-16) in Monday night’s Southern Conference Tournament championship game. The 26th win by Furman eclipses the 25 wins achieved two other times in school history, which happened in consecutive seasons (2018-19 and 2019-20). Tip-off between the Paladins and Mocs for the Southern Conference title game is set for 7 p.m. EST and will be nationally televised on ESPN. It marks the first time the Paladins have advanced to consecutive championship games in back-to-back seasons since 1979 and ’80.
The Paladins were led in scoring in the contest by four players in double figures, with Mike Bothwell’s 26 points leading the charge, while point guard JP Pegues added 24. Jalen Slawson narrowly missed a double-double, with 15 points and nine rebounds before fouling out with two minutes left in regulation, and Garrett Hien finished with 12.
Bothwell’s stellar performance saw him connect on 7-of-15 shots from the field, including 2-for-7 from three-point range and he went 10-of-16 from the line. He also added three rebounds, three assists and four steals.
Vonterius Woolbright’s 30 points led all scorers in the contest, while backcourt mate Tre Jackson added 22 points. Tyzhaun Claude closed out his night with 15 points and 11 boards, as he fouled out with 1:06 left in overtime.
Western Carolina finished the contest connecting on 44.1% (30-of-68) shots from the field, while shooting just 23.8% (5-of-21) from the three-point line. The Catamounts did make the most of their charity shots, connecting on 15-of-19 for the contest, which converts to a 78.9% clip. However, the Catamounts shot 27 less free throws than the Paladins in the contest.
The Paladins on the other hand, connected on just 39.0% (23-of-59) of their shots from the field, including just a 29.2% (7-of-24) clip in the second half. The Paladins did not make a three-pointer in the second half (0-for-11) and finished the game shooting just 22.6% (7-of-31) from long range. However, Furman got the line 46 times, making 30 and ended up with a 15-point advantage in foul shots made as a result. The 46 free throws shot and the 30 made were both season highs for the Paladins.
Western Carolina finished the night with advantages in total rebounds (46-36), points in the paint (46-30), second-chance points (18-12), fast-break points (7-5) and bench points (9-5). Furman owned a 12-6 edge in points from turnovers, and the two teams tied with 11 assists apiece.
Furman came out of the gates quickly, running to a 9-4 lead at the first media timeout, highlighted by a three by JP Pegues, as well as an acrobatic layup from Mike Bothwell and an alley-oop dunk to Jalen Slawson from Bothwell, bringing the Furman faithful to its collective feet. However, Western responded out of the first media timeout with a three-pointer from Russell Jones Jr. and layups by Vonterius Woolbright and Tre Jackson, allowing the Catamounts to assume their first lead of the night, at 13-12. That would remain the score as the two teams headed to the second media timeout of the opening half.
The two teams would battle back and forth over the next four minutes, but a three by Slawson and a layup by Hien as well as a jumper by Pegues gave the Paladins a 25-20 lead following a mini 13-7 spurt. The Paladins would see their lead grow to as many as 16 points in the opening half of play, as Bothwell scored on a second-chance opportunity in the paint, as his layup gave Furman a 42-26 lead with 2:39 left in the half. The Paladins would finish the half with 45, with a Ben VanderWal foul shot and a layup by JP Pegues helping the Paladins close out the half, taking a 15-point, 45-30 lead to the break.
Furman entered the night 23-2 when leading the game at the break, with one of those losses coming in Cullowhee to the Catamounts, and Western Carolina would very nearly turn the trick again, fighting their way back into the game. After falling behind by 20 following a pair of Bothwell free throws with 17:19 left gave the Paladins a 53-33 lead, the Catamounts would begin their slow but constant charge back into the game.
With just 38 seconds remaining, the Catamounts had surpassed the Paladins on the scoreboard, with Vonterius Woolbright’s layup off the right side, giving the Catamounts a 72-70 lead and sending the Catamount hue of Purple into delirium at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center. It was the first lead held by the Catamounts since they held a 15-14 advantage with just under 10 minutes remaining in the first half following a Tyzhaun Claude jumper in the paint.
Furman would tie the game, 72-72, following a pair of foul shots from Mike Bothwell with 26 seconds remaining. Furman’s defense forced Russell Jones Jr.’s shot to be a fade-a-way from the corner as time expired, and the shot was no good and the two teams would play an extra five minutes of basketball.
When the two teams headed to the extra session, Furman would be without one of its leaders, as Jalen Slawson fouled out of the game with 2:02 remaining. It was not too much unlike the situation earlier this season at the Ramsey Center, when Slawson fouled out of the 12-point loss back on Dec. 31, 2022.
The Catamounts would lose Tyzhaun Claude, who played an outstanding game before fouling out in overtime with 1:30 remaining. Like the first matchup with the Paladins in on New Year’s Eve, Claude fouled out. He only had seven points in that game, while he didn’t even play in the clash between the two in Greenville, nursing a sprained ankle. In Sunday night’s classic, Claude finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds.
The Catamounts wasted little time in getting the extra five minutes off to a fast start. Western Carolina, which came into the matchup 3-0 in overtime games this season, got things off to a good start when Tre Jackson banged a three after the Catamounts corralled one of their 14 offensive rebounds to give the Catamounts a 75-72 lead with 4:22 remaining.
Furman wouldn’t score its first points of the extra session until the 2:29 mark, as Ben VanderWal knocked down a pair of foul shots to get the Paladins within one, however, Woolbright again got free in the paint and coasted in for a layup to give the Catamounts a three-point lead once again, at 77-74, with 2:07 left. On the next trip down the floor, the ball found its way to Bothwell at the left elbow and his three, which is arguably one of the biggest shots of his five years in a Paladin uniform, knotted the score, 77-77, with 1:06 remaining.
The Catamounts continued to play high-level basketball, utilizing excellent guard penetration, much like the Catamounts had done in their win in Cullowhee earlier this season. To a certain extent, it was also something East Tennessee State was able to do well with DeAnthony Tipler and Jalen Haynes in the Bucs’ 83-79 loss in Greenville back on Feb. 19. Woolbright was versatile as a scorer and passer, and it’s something Furman had respect defensively, and it gave the Paladins problems for much of the second half and overtime and it’s how the Catamounts were able to get back into the contest, despite not shooting the ball well from deep. When Woolbright’s under-handed assist found its way to Claude with 1:30 remaining, he flushed it home with a monster dunk to give Western the lead once again, 79-77.
However, Mike Bothwell just wasn’t going to let the Paladins lose. It’s why he and Jalen Slawson came back, and with Slawson already gone, it was up to him to help the Paladins find a way after it had struggled to score points for much of the final 10 minutes and overtime to score points. Bothwell drove in for a layup and missed but drew Claude’s fifth foul with 1:06 to play. He would knock down a pair of free throws to tie the game.
Western Carolina’s Woolbright was fouled on the other end by Marcus Foster with 49 seconds left. He connected on 1-of-2 free throws to give the Catamounts the narrow 80-79 lead.
Furman’s player to be reckoned with for much of the first half and the tournament so far has been JP Pegues. Pegues was able to coax WCU’s Bernard Pelote off his feet and then proceeded to jump into him in the act of shooting a three-pointer to draw the foul and three-shot opportunity from the charity stripe. It was a tactic that former Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller used to utilize with plenty of success throughout his storied NBA career. Pegues made two of three free throws to put the Paladins back on top, 81-80, with 28 seconds to play.
Following a timeout by Western Carolina, the Paladins would force Jackson to take a contested jumper from just outside the paint, which was off the mark and rebounded by Marcus Foster and then quickly passed into the hands of Bothwell, who was immediately fouled with eight seconds to play. Bothwell made both foul shots to give Furman a three-point lead. Furman burned its final timeout and then survived Jackson’s three-point attempt at the buzzer to hold on for a heart-stopping 83-80 win.