By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, March 10, 2007
Say what you want about the three-point shot. But don't say it's not fun.
Bombs-away versus grind-it-out -- which was better? Georgetown and Notre Dame's thrilling Big East semifinal was a game of stylistic opposites, and an answer to critics who complain that the three-point shot has ruined the collegiate game. It didn't ruin this one; it made it what it was.
It was a game of contrasts and lead swings, strategic shifts and counters -- all of which built steadily to an enthralling finish, an 84-82 victory for the Hoyas. It was a matter of the Hoyas' method and patience against the Irish's inspiration and desperate flights from the arc, 26 attempts in all. Anyone who argues the three-pointer has somehow marred collegiate play will have a hard time supporting their argument after watching such a contest, which ended with Notre Dame's Russell Carter missing a wide open, heart-clutching last try from beyond the arc just before time expired.
"Everybody get their money's worth?" Irish Coach Mike Brey asked.
The three-pointer was introduced prior to the 1986-87 season with the notion that it would open the court and relieve the pressure in the packed-in middle of the floor. Its critics variously argue that it has become too easy, or that it makes the game more egalitarian than it should, or unduly rewards the smaller sharpshooter, or creates a disincentive to work the ball inside. They say the arc should be moved back to 23 feet, NBA range. But moving the line won't stop players from taking three-pointers; they just might not make as many. It's an ideology as much as a strategy.
The truth is, there are those who love the three and those who hate it, just as there are Marxists and capitalists, conservative and liberal, manual and automatic, natural and synthetic, rare and well done.
Moving the line won't alter the fact that, from a mathematical standpoint, if you shoot 40 percent from beyond the arc, an opponent taking only two-pointers must shoot 60 percent to keep up with you. That's what really drives opponents crazy -- to them it's sort of like someone who didn't study for a test getting an A.
Personally, it's what I love about the three. It maintains balance, forces teams to stretch and attend to the whole floor. It produces fascinating decisions -- and yes, unlikely upsets -- in a game that might otherwise be overrun by giants. In this case, it forced Georgetown to control its own panic and show considerable composure as it sought to find an answer to Notre Dame's onslaught from the arc.
The top-seeded Hoyas had to fight off a stunning challenge from the Irish, who took a 14 point first-half lead by knocking down eight threes. When the Irish rippled the nets in the opening minutes, the Hoyas looked slow and stodgy by comparison with their disciplined, patient, look-for-the-extra-pass system. The Hoyas did absolutely nothing wrong -- and were down nine after little more than five minutes.
But the Hoyas won in the end with soundness. They didn't get flustered, they just kept working, and cut it to two by halftime. There was no flashy run; they just strung together a basket here and another one there, and a dogged effort inside yielded 13 free throws in the first half.
"We were able to methodically claw our way back . . . ," Coach John Thompson III said. "When the flow of the game changes that, you know, we can't come down and get a 10-point play. Our guys understand that no matter what the situation, whether we're up or we're down, we have to methodically get a stop, methodically get a good shot. I thought our guys remained composed when we were getting run out of the gym early."
By the time the Hoyas built a seven-point lead with 5 minutes 1 second left in the game, they had scored 40 points in the paint to just 20 for the Irish. Meantime, they were slowly but surely pressuring the Irish to shoot themselves out of it. The Irish went just 2 for 12 from three-point range in the second half, a result of the Hoyas' extension of their defense and harassing reach.
"The whole first half we gave guys open looks," Thompson said. "I think we were just a lot more attentive in the second half."
Fittingly for the victors, the decisive points came not on a three-pointer, but rather on a gritty, patiently developed play to Jeff Green, in the paint. Green took a pass in the heart of the Irish defense and flipped the ball up toward the rim.
"I just put it up there and tried to get it on the rim and it went in," Green said. "It was a lucky shot."
There is much to be said for an element of the game that forces a team to control its own emotions, to understand that it can never let up, and to weigh risk and reward on virtually every play. To live by the three, or not, remains one of the most compelling decisions in the game, and in the aftermath of Friday's gem, both sides seemed comfortable with their choices.
"We would take that shot in every NCAA tournament game we play to win the rest of the way," Brey said of Carter's final attempt. "We'll take it and I'll live with the results."