Sunday, March 18, 2018

Raining 3s: FGCU keeps flourishing from beyond the arc

Published 5:16 a.m. ET March 13, 2018

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gulf Coast has made and taken more 3-pointers than any other women’s team in the nation this season, and that’s obviously part of the reason why the Eagles are headed back to the NCAA Tournament.

The numbers, however, are often misunderstood.

Taking a slew of 3-pointers is easy. What separates FGCU is that the Eagles insist on taking only the right kind of 3s — a far more disciplined approach than some sort of chuck-and-duck gimmick philosophy. The Eagles usually don’t take step-backs, they aren’t pulling up from 28 feet in transition or running players off a series of staggered screens just to get another 3 in the air.

“It’s got to be open,” senior Taylor Gradinjan said. “Open 3s, open 3s, open 3s. Those are so much easier. Our offense just opens up for those.”

Taking those away will be the challenge for Missouri on Saturday, when the fifth-seeded Tigers (24-7) meet the 12th-seeded Eagles (30-4) in a first-round game of the Lexington Regional at Stanford, California.

Missouri coach Robin Pingeton knew one thing about FGCU when the pairings came out.

“I know that they are a team that shoots the lights out from the 3-point line,” Pingeton said.

Well, she had the basics down.

FGCU’s 407 made 3-pointers lead all of Division I, men’s or women’s, and are 17 shy of matching the single-season record of 424 set by Sacramento State in 2014-15. There’s been two instances this season of a Division I women’s team making 22 3-pointers in a game — and both of those were courtesy of FGCU.

It’s a style that Eagles coach Karl Smesko has been preaching since he started coaching, with the insistence that players who are going to shoot them in games take dozens — sometimes hundreds — in practice, with an emphasis on perfect form every time.

“We definitely believe in our style of play,” Smesko said. “We were doing this style of play 20-some years ago and now it seems to be the trend for everybody. But the more important part is our players believe in it. They know the value of being able to knock down an open shot, so they spend a lot of time working on correcting their form, getting their reps in, taking their reps seriously.”

To best illustrate the system by which FGCU has become a 3-point juggernaut, consider the case of senior guard Jessica Cattani and her role as the Eagles won yet another Atlantic Sun Conference title.

Cattani is the most accurate 3-point shooter on the Eagles’ roster this season. And in the game against Jacksonville, the conference final that would decide if FGCU was headed back to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in the last seven seasons, Cattani tried no 3-pointers. No shots at all, actually. Barely even played.

Reason? Again, FGCU only takes 3-pointers when it’s right.

Jacksonville knows FGCU’s system as well as anyone, and largely took the 3-pointer away. The Dolphins switched on most screens, extended their defense and dared the Eagles to drive (which they did, eventually, and wound up winning by 10). The style of play didn’t suit Cattani’s game, so the Eagles didn’t force the issue.

“We’re known for shooting 3s,” Cattani said. “This year, we’ve just had so many people step up and work on their shot. That’s what makes us so dangerous.”

Cattani is shooting 43 percent from 3-point range. Teams that run her off the line have paid for the gamble; Cattani is shooting 73 percent from 2-point range this season.

Of FGCU’s nine leading scorers this season, eight are shooting at least 33 percent from 3-point range.

“I think we feed off each other,” said Gradinjan, a 39 percent shooter from 3-point range and someone who defenses rarely leave alone. “We feed off everyone’s energy. We work on the 3-point shot so much that we all know we can make it. We’re all confident, so when other people are doing it you just get fired up — and then you shoot the ball, you shoot it the way you’re supposed to, and it goes in.”

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