It was the dawn of a new era in the United States. The average cost of gas was $1.19, the average income per year was a little under 20K per year, and the president was Jimmy Carter. Mount Saint Helens erupted, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the LA Rams, 31-19, in the Super Bowl, the No. 1 single was Blondie’s “Call Me,” and Denny Crum’s Louisville Cardinals claimed the NCAA Basketball crown, and oh yeah, I was born on April 28 of that year. The year was 1980.
That year was also the last time Furman made the NCAA Tournament – until this year.
On March 6, 2023, it had been 15,710 days since Furman last cut down the nets at a Southern Conference Tournament. It was also 364 days removed from David Jean-Baptiste’s 36-footer that sent Furman home from Asheville with only heartbreak following a 64-63 overtime loss to Chattanooga in last year’s title game.
This year, the Paladins had the last laugh, to the tune of an 88-79 win over No. 7 seed Chattanooga to win the 2023 SoCon title game.
“This is a program night,” Paladin head coach Bob Richey said. “This is a Furman University night. I wasn’t born in 1980, but I don’t have to hear that mess again.”
Furman heads to the NCAA Tournament with a 27-7 record.
Furman’s Journey and Culture
When the final moments ticked off the clock in Monday night’s championship game, I observed many folks that have been associated with Furman basketball over the years, including many former players, wandering the floor as the band played and confetti fell. Tears started to flow for many.
Guys like Daniel Fowler, Geoff Beans, Jordan Lyons, Andrew Brown and even Anthony Thomas could all feel the weight of the moment. It was one 43 years in the making.
Monday night’s win over the Mocs was its 180th since the start of the 2015-16 season—the most of any program in the Southern Conference during that span.
It was March of 2015 when Furman made its “turn” as a program. The Paladins made a remarkable run to the tournament championship game that year as the No. 10 seed and lost to top seed Wofford. The program was just two years removed from winning six games.
In 2016-17 Paladins won a share of the regular-season Southern Conference crown, sharing the crown with East Tennessee State and UNC Greensboro. It was the first Southern Conference title for the program since 1990-91.
But the Paladins were surprised in the opening round of the Southern Conference by the No. 7 seed Samford. Furman made a run to the semifinals to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament and lost its head coach, Niko Medved, to Drake along the way.
Furman followed it up with another solid season. The 2018-19 team achieved the school’s first-ever national ranking and went to the NIT. Highlighting the season were a 12-0 start, which included wins over defending national champion and No. 8 Villanova (76-68) and Loyola-Chicago (60-58).
The Paladins matched a school-record with 25 wins a year later, and then set a new mark for SoCon wins with 15. However, a disappointing 76-68 loss to No. 7 seed Wofford in Asheville ended the season abruptly for the Paladins.
The limited 2020-21 schedule saw the Paladins have another great opportunity to win the SoCon Tournament and title. The Paladins finished third in the final regular-season standings and headed to Asheville with a 16-8 record to face a dangerous No. 6 seed, in VMI. The Paladins lost a 91-90 overtime game.
Then came the 2021-22 season. The favorite was Chattanooga. Rightfully so, as the Mocs were loaded. Players like Jean-Baptiste, Malachi Smith, Silvio De Sousa and Darius Banks were pillars of that team, and if you add in the ultimate glue guy AJ Caldwell, it was a truly complete team built for March success.
After last season, many felt Furman was cursed and found reasons to doubt them this season. When Jake Stephens helped the Mocs make a run to the championship by playing some outstanding basketball, many found reasons to believe in the Mocs, despite playing a fourth game in four days.
The title game was the 115th win for seniors Jalen Slawson and Mike Bothwell, which is the most of anyone who has put on a Furman uniform.
“I am going to miss them,” Richey said of his two fifth-year seniors. “We are not done. 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 validation. The growth is already evident. They became legendary tonight. I don’t know when or how but No. 20 and No. 3 are going in the rafters. They’re the all-time winningest players in Furman history. They came back this year to win this thing for the program.”
In summation, Furman found its joy and its motivation as the season progressed. It’s won 14 of its last 15 games heading into the NCAA Tournament.
“This is just an unbelievable group of people,” Richey said. “This isn’t a person. This isn’t a player. It’s a program. There’s a lot of people didn’t think we would do this. That’s really what got us going, to be honest with you, They thought last year was going to push this back. Instead, all it did was it motivated us to come together.”
An Unlikely hero to some...
We know what Bothwell and Slawson can do, but sophomore point guard JP Pegues has truly emerged as a star. The Southern Conference Tournament Most Outstanding Player averaged 21.0 PPG in three tournament games this past weekend and has hit double figures in 15 of his last 16 games.
Stay tuned later in the week as I will be sharing my annual SoCon Tournament recap, which will include all of the superlatives and greatest moments from college basketball’s oldest conference tournament.