Furman Basketball Season Recap: Part 1 of 5

Furman works its purple magic to reach March Madness in the Magic Kingdom

When sophomore guard JP Pegues nailed a three-pointer with 2.2 seconds remaining, which led to the Paladins’ 68-67 NCAA Tournament first round win over the No. 4 seeded Virginia in Orlando, it had been 49 years since Furman had won a game on college basketball’s greatest stage, as well as 376 days since David Jean-Baptiste had knocked down a 36-foot buzzer-beating effort to end Furman’s 2022 NCAA Tournament and SoCon Tournament title hopes.

For those who had followed Furman’s magical ride over the past eight years, it was surely a justified ending for a program that had been as successful as any other league member who had won a league title in that time span.

In fact, it was the one missing piece for a Furman program that had equaled or eclipsed any of the other four league members that have won the tournament title over the past eight years.

Nine years after making its initial appearance in the title game as the No. 10 seed against top-seeded Wofford in the Southern Conference title game, and a full 43 years since cutting down the nets in Asheville initially as the the Southern Conference Tournament Champion, the Furman Paladins reigned supreme in Asheville, N.C., as the final buzzer sounded at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in Asheville, with the scoreboard reading: FURMAN 88, CHATTANOOGA 79.  The 43-year tournament drought was over!

Despite everyone looking on ready to critique Furman, offering a reason as to why the so-called curse and drought may roll over to 44 years, the Paladins were able to change a recent narrative that had seen the program enjoyed plenty of success, without taking the next step to join league blue bloods Chattanooga, Wofford, East Tennessee State and UNC Greensboro, as the final of those highly successful programs over the past eight years to cut down the nets in Asheville.

At the end of the 2022-23 season, the Paladins would now find themselves to be the most successful SoCon program over an eight-year stretch, having posted a 181-82 overall record, which includes a 103-38 in SoCon games.

The Paladins have averaged 22.7 wins per seasons during that span. Both of those marks are the most successful among the league’s 10 current member institutions over the past eight seasons.

The Paladins also headed to Asheville as the top seed for the Southern Conference Tournament for the first time in 32 years, despite tying for the regular-season league crown with Samford. By virtue of the Paladins’ season sweep of the Bulldogs, the Paladins would head into the SoCon Tournament in the best position possible to cut down the nets.

Not even the return of Chattanooga big man Jake Stephens, who spent much of Southern Conference play with a hand injury only to return just in time for the tournament, could stop Furman’s momentum in Asheville this time around.

The nine-point win marked Furman’s seventh Southern Conference title, marking the first time Furman had cut down nets at the end of a conference tournament since doing so in Roanoke, VA, back in March of 1980, as the Paladins defeated the Marshall Thundering Herd, And while Furman’s run in Asheville was a memorable one, it wasn’t even the major lasting memory that the Paladin fans will take with them from the season.

In fact, Furman, which won a school-record 28 games and finished the campaign with a 28-8 overall record, which included tying a program record for SoCon wins (15) en route to tying for the regular-season title with Samford by finishing 15-3 in league play, did one better, as the Paladins made the most of their return to the Big Dance for the first time in 43 years by winning its first NCAA Tournanent in nearly half-a-century.

The Paladins made their “One Shining Moment” the first “Shining Moment” of the 2023 NCAA Tournament, as the Paladins stunned Virginia, 68-67, courtesy of a JP Pegues dagger three off a Virginia turnover in the backcourt with just 2.2 seconds remaining.

That three and the call by TruTV’s Kevin Harlan, Dan Bonner and Stan Van Gundy, went viral, and was one of the over-arching themes in a tournament of upsets. Furman’s NCAA Tournament would come to an end in the Round of 32, with a 75-52 loss to eventual national runner-up San Diego State. It marked the second-straight season that the Paladins have faced the national runner-up, with the ‘Dins having suffered a 74-61 regular-season setback at North Carolina last season.

The Aztecs, who were the No. 5 seed in the South Region, ended up dropping a 76-59 contest to the No. 4 seed out of the West Region—the UConn Huskies—in the national championship game. In the 2022 title matchup, the No. 8 seeded North Carolina Tar Heels saw the No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks storm back from a 15-point halftime deficit to claim what was a 72-69 national championship game win.

The one-point, 68-67, win by the Paladins was especially rewarding for Southern Conference basketball fans, who had witnessed the heartbreak of a year earlier when the Chattanooga Mocs had suffered a heartbreaking 54-53 setback to Illinois in a No. 4-13 matchup in Pittsburgh. In that game, the Mocs had three good looks to claim the win on their final possession, however, couldn’t convert and ended up suffering a heartbreaking one-point loss. 

With Bob Richey eagerly telling the Furman faithful to dream big dreams, the Paladins got a taste of the standard to be reached when they faced the Aztecs in the first game of the second round of the tournament. The silver lining being the victory over a good Virginia team showed Furman as a mid-major on the immediate rise nationally, while many who follow the Southern Conference and mid-major basketball already knew that.

The 1-1 performance by the Paladins in the NCAA Tournament would improve the SoCon’s all-time record to 33-80 in the Big Dance, while seeing the league win a tournament game for the first time since Wofford was victorious in a first-round game over Seton Hall, 84-68, as the Terriers played as the No. 7 seed against the 10th seeded Pirates. For Furman, it was their first NCAA Tournament win since 1974, when the Paladins defeated South Carolina, 75-67, in the then 25-team tournament.

The Paladins are now 2-8 all-time in the NCAA Tournament. Furman’s story in the 2022-23 season was highlighted by keeping joy throughout the process, and especially adverse moments, as head coach Bob Richey kept reminding fans and the media throughout the season. By the time March rolled around, the term “calloused” was used on more than one occasion to describe the collection of talent present on the 2022-23 roster. In other words, the group, highlighted by a pair of fifth-year seniors in Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson, who would close out their respective careers as Furman’s two winningest players (116-career wins).

The two have helped factor into 64.0% of Furman’s 181 wins since the start of the 2015-16 season over the past five seasons.  The Paladins certainly encountered their share of struggles throughout the season, despite finishing with a 28-8 record. With that said, the Paladins became just the second SoCon team to win a game in mid-March since 2009. As of April 3, the Paladins had a final NET ranking of No. 88, while being rated No. 92 in the final KenPom ratings. 

The Paladins, however, garnered the first No. 1 overall seed in the Southern Conference Tournament for the first time since 1991, as the Paladins completed the regular-season sweep of the Bulldogs on the final day of league play and doing so in resounding fashion, as Mike Bothwell’s 35-point effort helped Furman win on the road at one of the toughest road environments in mid-major basketball–the Pete Hanna Center–a place that the Samford Bulldogs had been victorious against 15-straight Southern Conference opponents by the time the Paladins paid a visit for the regular-season finale.

It would mark one of two 30-point efforts for Bothwell during the 2022-23 season, as he also posted a career-high 36 points, connecting on a baseline jumper with 0.2 seconds remaining, as the Paladins held off Stephen F. Austin for what was a memorable 72-70 win over the Lumberjacks. Slawson and Bothwell would become part of Paladin basketball lore in the 2022-23 season, with the duo having helped the Paladins to a program record 28 wins, and combined for 3,524 points in their respective careers.

The two also finished with a combined 479 assists and  354 steals. Both woukd garner First Team All-SoCon honors, while Slawson became the 12th Paladin in program history and first since Devin Sibley in 2017 to garner Southern Conference Player of the Year award, as he was named both the coaches and media league player of the year. Slawson was the 2021-22 SoCon Defensive Player of the Year.

In addition to the individual awards, Furman forward Ben VanderWal, who was one of the top sixth men in the SoCon this past season, ended up garnering a place on the SoCon’s All-Freshman Team. Another story was the outstanding performance of JP Pegues, who after having not played a minute of point guard in his rookie campaign of 2021-22, grew into a certified star as the season progressed.

After Furman cut down the nets in Asheville, Furman point guard JP Pegues, who was not voted to any of the three all-conference teams as selected by the league’s coaches or media, ended up garnering the SoCon Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player honor following Furman three wins in Asheville.

He would become just the third player in the past two decades to not make any all-conference team, yet win the SoCon Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, joining both Chattanooga’s Greg Pryor (2016) and ETSU’s Isaiah Tisdale (2020).  It marked the first time since Jonathan “Stitch” Moore in 1980 that a Paladin garnered the SoCon Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player distinction as the SoCon Tournament’s best player.

It marked just the fifth time in program history that a Paladin player has walked away from the nation’s oldest conference tournament’s most distinguished citation, joining both Clyde Mayes (1973 and ’75) and Jonathan Moore (1978 and ’80) in that elite company.

Stay tuned for the next four parts which will take a look at each of the four months of the basketball season individually in a unique background, giving insight into just how Furman won. the championship and where they improved and where they struggled and saw improvement.

It was truly a remarkable season, and best of all for Furman fans is that they will have head coach Bob Richey around at least one more season to try and now repeat as league champions since winning three in a row from 1973-75.

Check out the season 2022-23 highlights below.

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: