By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Holy Spirit had worked so hard to get back into its game against Mainland Regional on Feb. 8. Early in the fourth quarter, the Spartans trailed by 12, 46-34, forcing Spirit coach Jamie Gillespie to call a timeout. Coming out of the break, junior guard Drew Gallagher nailed a 3-pointer, then hit another to help get the Spartans to within 46-41 with 3:25 left. Gallagher hit another three with 1:05 left to get the Spartans within one, 48-47, and with 12 seconds left Reece Miller hit a free throw to force overtime.
The Spartans had all the momentum heading into overtime. They had out-scored the Mustangs 14-2 down the stretch and had the home crowd in a frenzy.
But Mainland’s Brandon Savitch was lurking, and he struck with the speed of a cobra.
Savitch hit a pair of 3-pointers early in the overtime period — after not hitting one the entire game — and just like that the Mustangs had a 54-51 lead and eventually sealed a 59-54 victory at the free-throw line. All that work the Spartans had put in to force overtime was washed away with two shots from the left corner.
“It’s tough if you miss a couple, but you just have to keep shooting. If you’re getting open looks you have to try to knock them down. My coach and I talk about it, if my shot isn’t falling down maybe try to get to the foul line and get my rhythm back. It’s all about rhythm. If you hit one, you have the rhythm to hit another one. So it might take getting to the foul line or taking an easier shot to reset yourself. It’s not the easiest thing to be cold all game,” Savitch said. “My specialty is 3-point shooting, so I’m glad I got to step up and knock those down for my team. It’s definitely a confidence boost to be able to hit a three and go back on defense. When I hit the first three, the next possession down coach (Dan) Williams gave me another shot and ran a play specifically for me. Luckily, I knocked that one down, too. It’s a confidence thing. Since my coach showed confidence enough to run a play for me, I felt like I needed to knock it down.”
“I think the key is just relaxing and having a lot of confidence. If you’re open, you have to shoot it. If the ball goes in, it goes in, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. The main thing is you just have to be confident and keep shooting,” said St. Augustine Prep senior guard Austin Kennedy, who hit a couple of big long-range shots in a 20-point win over Atlantic City during the Battle by the Bay showcase event in early February. “A 3-point shot is key in high school games because it can break the other team’s back.”
The three-point field goal was introduced to the NBA in 1979, with the NCAA and high school basketball following suit in 1986 and 1987, respectively. Since then, coaches have been salivating over players who could tickle the twine from long range. NBA players such as Dale Ellis, Larry Bird, Kyle Korver, Steve Nash and Reggie Miller, to name just a few, were three-point maestros during their careers. These days, kids emulate Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, who seems as if he can nail a 3-pointer from anywhere in the arena.
And Tim Legler, whose son, Ryan, plays for Wildwood Catholic, had an 11-year NBA career primarily because he was a good shooter. He shot 43 percent from three during his career and during the 1995-96 season, he shot 52 percent and hit a career-high 128 threes in 77 games.
Egg Harbor Township junior guard Liana Fiore is one of those players who studies Steph Curry and his amazingly quick release.
“Last summer, I started watching Steph Curry. I wanted to learn how to have a quicker release like he does,” said Fiore, who through the end of January was leading the Cape-Atlantic League with 33 threes in 66 attempts, good for an astounding 50 percent. “I also started lifting weights and I think that really helped me this year.”
Shooters agree that a player needs to have some talent to be a good three-point shooter, but by and large it’s hard work that is going to make a shooter successful and give his or her coach confidence that they can hit the big shot when its needed.
“I’ve always worked on my shot, ever since I started playing around third or fourth grade. I knew as a guard I kind of had to pick either ball-handling or shooting,” said Savitch, a senior who is in the top 10 in the CAL in 3-pointers made and shoots better than 35 percent from beyond the arc. “It’s really all about repetition. Just getting in the gym and figuring out your shot. It takes a lot of practice and then it will finally come naturally to you. You have to have some talent — it should come naturally. But you’re not going to shoot 40 percent from three if you don’t put the time in. The skill comes in the beginning, but after that it’s all about working on your shot.”
“I started out with the little toy net and I’d play on that every day in the driveway. When I turned 9, my mom bought me a real net and I would just go out and shoot every day,” Fiore said. “When I was playing rec basketball with the boys, the only time I would get the ball would be out by the 3-point line, so I figured I might as well shoot when I got the ball. The funny thing about my shot is I started out shooting left-handed even though I’m right-handed. My step-dad was like, ‘why is she shooting with her left hand?’ So then I started form shooting with my right hand every day to create that muscle memory.”
“It’s such a game-changer. But she’s so steady that it’s become part of our offense. It’s not like it’s ever shocking. It’s more shocking when she misses. The other night against Millville she went 1-for-6 and that was her worst shooting night of the year. But every shot we were like, ‘how did that not go in?’ Each one was in and out. Every shot she takes is so good,” said EHT coach Danielle Brady. “She really did a great job this summer with her weight training, and that’s allowed her to be able to create her own shot. She’s had the same shot since eighth grade, but now she’s able to get a quicker release. She’s always had great technique — we’ll go to camps and coaches can’t wait to work with her.”
Savitch said the key to being a great three-point shooter is all about the feet, not the hands.
“You have to have great footwork. I really focus on watching the footwork of guys like Kyle Korver and J.J. Reddick and how they get themselves open and move on screens. I look at that more than their form itself. How they are able to move off screens and get themselves open, I try to incorporate that into my game,” he said. “Footwork is really key. If you are off balanced or don’t have your feet under you, it can really affect you. I always talk about getting squared up to the basket, that’s big for me to get a clean look. Another thing I studied from great shooters is their balance. Their ability to come off a screen, rise up and stay balanced is amazing. You can feel good about your shot if you are squared up and have a nice follow-through.”
In the zone
Ask any three-point specialist and they will tell you, they run hot and cold. There are nights when it feels like they are trying to shoot a basketball into a coffee cup. But, ah, there are those nights when it’s like tossing a ball into a swimming pool. Those are the nights shooters relish.
Savitch said he can’t always tell what kind of night it’s going to be during the pregame shoot-around. He might be nailing everything in pregame, then shoot 1-for-5 during the game. But there are nights when his shot might not feel so great before the game and he ends up with three or four 3-pointers during the game. Most shooters agree that whether or not their first three-point attempt goes down can be a big indicator of how the night is going to go.
“When I hit my first three I feel like it’s going to be a good game. But there have been games when I couldn’t hit anything in the first half, but in the second half I would start making them. It’s a great feeling that I can hit them for my team. I think it excites them when I hit a big shot. It’s a pretty cool feeling. I try not to get nervous. You have to stay calm and slow everything down in your head,” Fiore said. “When another team is hitting threes it tough. You have to close out more on defense at the top of the key. You have to know how to defend that.”
The key, though, is to just keep shooting. Eventually things will heat up.
“If I’m not hitting anything in the first half, I just keep shooting. My step-dad always tells me a shooter has to have a short memory. You have to forget the misses,” Fiore said. “If I’m not hitting anything I just try to pick it up on defense. If you’re having an off night shooting you can still play good defense because that’s just an effort thing. Usually, when I start doing better on defense that helps my offense.”
Savitch said Mainland has a “heat check.” Which basically means, if a shooter is hot, get him the ball.
“It’s exciting when you get hot because you just want to keep shooting. And we have the heat check, which our team goes through. We respect the heat check,” Savitch said. “If a guy is hot, get him the ball and let him throw one up. If you’re hitting them, you’re hitting them.”
“There are nights when you really feel it. You come out hot and just keep making shots,” Kennedy added. “It’s a great feeling, especially in a big game. It’s a lot of fun. You know it’s going to go in because you’ve been feeling it.”
Brady said it can be incredibly frustrating as a coach going up against a hot three-point shooter. Sometimes there is just nothing you can do defensively to stop them.
“Any team who has a shooter, they kill you. You can come up with a plan, but if they have a shooter (the plan) doesn’t mean much. We knew we had that type of player in Liana, but she was young last year, in just her first year on varsity. Now, it’s pretty cool seeing her coming to her own,” Brady said. “Now we know what it’s like to have a shooter. On the high school level, if you have two good players you’re a pretty good team. If you’re athletic and in shape and making layups, you can be in a lot of games. But if you have some true shooters, that just takes you to another level. I’m just glad (Liana) is a junior and we have another year with her. The progression that she made from last year to this year, if she can keep that going she’s going to have an awesome senior year.”
Hitting 3-pointers can be quite addictive to a shooter. When they are hot, they feel like they need the ball in their hands on every possession. Savitch said he had that feeling earlier this season when he drained six 3-pointers and finished with 36 points in a game against Montclair. It was a game, he said, where he felt like he couldn’t miss.
“You’re just like, give me the rock! I want to shoot some more,” Savitch said. “That was such a fun game. You feel like if you get the ball in the air it’s going to go in, and that’s a great feeling.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN