ASHEVILLE, N.C. – A lot can happen in 365 days. But recovering from the most difficult heartbreak that Furman head coach Bob Richey and several Paladin players have ever experienced would take a year and 40 minutes.
One year agon in the Southern Conference Championship game, Ritchie watched helplessly as Chattanooga senior David Jean-Baptiste made a desperation 44-foot shot to lift the Mocs to the tournament title and berth in the NCAA tournament. The stunned Paladins dragged themselves off of the court and into the offseason, with many believing their window had closed. But Richie made a promise they would return.
And on this night, the top-seeded Paladins returned and claimed their title, outlasting the seventh-seeded Mocs 88-79 to give Furman their first conference tournament trophy since 1980, and lifting the burden of disappointment that has followed them for a year.
“A lot you can say about tonight.” Richey mused, about an hour after the final buzzer. “A lot you can say about the last year of our lives, but man, unbelievable. Just to see the joy in our players. I told my staff this morning, I wanted to see this so bad for Mike (Bothwell) and Slaw (Jalen Slawson). This guy to me left (JP Pegues), two hours last night getting fluids, just playing like an absolute warrior tonight. But you know what? I wouldn’t change a thing about this. I sat up here a year ago and told y’all that we would be back.”
Led by Slawson’s 20 points, five rebounds and four assists, Pegues’ 17 points, six rebounds, and four assists, and Bothwell’s 16 points and four rebounds, Furman (27-7) won the game of runs in front of a partisan Furman crowd of 6,102 at Harrah’s Cherokee Center in Asheville, and punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament.
“We’re not done, Richie said. “We’ve got more to do. They’re great players but their person has grown so much in their time in this program. I told them this morning this win would be the reward. This isn’t the validation. The growth is already evident. They became legendary tonight.”
A determined Chattanooga rallied several times from large deficits to make this a contest. Led by grad transfer Jake Stephens’ 25 points and eight rebounds, the relentless Mocs made this a 40 minute game despite Furman threatening to run away and hide.
“Obviously a tough result for the Mocs tonight,’ head coach Dan Earl said. “Tremendous credit to Furman. I have a ton of respect for coach (Bob) Richey and what they’ve accomplished over the years. I’m super proud of our guys. They continued to battle throughout. I think it shows a lot about their character They came out, swinging and made an interesting game. I am super proud of these guys.”
Neither team were exceptional from the floor. Chattanooga (18-17) connected on 45.8% from the floor, including 34.6% from behind the arc. Furman knocked down 48.3% from the field, and 32% from deep. The difference was Furman’s willingness to attack the rim and ending up at the free throw line. The Paladins connected on 24 of 30 from the charity stripe compared to the Mocs’ 16 of 20 effort.
“We just couldn’t keep them off the line,” Earl said. “They were driving it downhill. Credit to them, they played really strong.”
The Paladins opened the game on fire, igniting the crowd in what looked like quick work for the number one seed. A layup by Slawson with 11:17 remaining in the half capped an 18-0 Furman run, giving the Paladins a 23-7 lead.
The Mocs soon answered with an avalanche of their own. A layup with 3:08 left in the half by A.J. Caldwell finished a 15-0 Chattanooga run that brought the seven-seed within four, 30-26. The teams exchanged baskets from there until the end of the half, with Tournament Most Outstanding Player Pegues at the buzzer earned Furman a 38-33 advantage at the intermission.
Furman now waits for their NCAA Tournament destination and opponent to be revealed on Sunday, March 12.
#1 Furman 88
#7 Chattanooga 79