John Bazemore/Associated Press file photo
John Bazemore/Associated Press file photo
It’s March, and in college basketball that means tournament time – and last-second buzzer beaters.
Memorable shots by Duke’s Christian Laettner and Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew in the NCAA Tournament have earned a permanent place among the game’s lore.
Whoever steps up this month will be unafraid of the moment. They’ll probably have the ability to create their own shot and have the skills to take advantage of what the defense gives them – a look at a 3-pointer, a mid-range jumper or an open lane to the basket.
For a handful of current players such as Florida State’s Michael Snaer, it has become an art. He’s one of a select group of players who have at least twice hit a shot in the last 8 seconds to force overtime or win a game.
While everyone might want to take that shot, there aren’t many who have proven more than once they’ll deliver in that big moment.
Snaer has hit six winners, four this year for half his team’s Atlantic Coast Conference wins. He knows the ball is coming his way late in a close game – and he’s always ready.
“You’ve just got to play basically off instinct,” he said. “And the players that are able to do that and just clear their whole thought process ... those are the players that are the great ones that are able to take those shots and make those shots.”
There are plenty of players with high-profile winners in the last two seasons, including Indiana’s Christian Watford against Kentucky last year and Butler’s Roosevelt Jones against now-No. 1 Gonzaga in January. But research by The Associated Press found there are at least 13 players who have hit those shots more than once in their careers.
The list includes: FSU’s Snaer, Niagara’s Juan’ya Green, Nevada’s Deonte Burton, Indiana State’s Jake Odum, South Dakota State’s Chad White, Delaware’s Devon Saddler, George Mason’s Sherrod Wright, Arizona’s Mark Lyons, UCLA’s Larry Drew II, Georgia State’s Rashaad Anderson, Oral Roberts’ Damen Bell-Holter and the Massachusetts duo of Terrell Vinson and Chaz Williams.
Lyons and Drew even have last-second winners or OT-forcing shots at more than one school. Lyons did it at Xavier last year, while Drew did it at North Carolina in the 2010 NIT.
“It takes a lot of confidence,” Wildcats coach Sean Miller said. “With that confidence, (it’s) the ability to endure criticism because missing a game-winning shot sometimes is the problem of someone willing to take it. It’s not that they don’t believe in their ability as much as, in my mind, I don’t know if they don’t feel good about the aftermath if that thing doesn’t go in. To me, that overwhelms them.”
At Niagara, coach Joe Mihalich has watched Green grow from a deferential freshman to a fearless sophomore capable of handling those chaotic final moments.
“You’ve got to want the ball,” Mihalich said. “When you make a great play, that’s what makes you a great player. ... When you make one or two, then it’s just like, ‘Gimme more; gimme more.’ You get kind of addicted to it.”
Green first hit a runner with 0.2 seconds left last year against St. Francis (Pa.). This year, he hit a 3 with 0.5 seconds left against Iona in overtime (he forced OT on a 3 with 4.5 seconds left in that one) and hit a 3 with 1.5 seconds left against Marist.
As a result, Green has earned the nickname “Win’ya” from the team’s radio announcer.
“After the first one, you’re still kind of nervous about it,” Green said. “You’re like, ‘It might’ve been a lucky shot, and it went in.’ After that second one, you just feel confident enough to take that shot in any game.
“I think it comes down to the adrenaline. Once your adrenaline is pumping, you have no fear.”
Players who have come through more than once say they have more confidence that the next one will go in.
“I feel lucky to get those opportunities,” said South Dakota State’s White, who hit two last-second 3s in an 11-day span in November. “I just feel like it’s an honor to have that opportunity to shoot it and people believing you’re going to make it.”
For Odum, that belief began with a runner with 0.5 seconds left against Evansville in the 2011 Missouri Valley Conference tournament. This year, he hit a leaner with 0.8 seconds left to beat Miami on Christmas Day, then hit two free throws with 0.3 seconds left to beat Northern Iowa in January.
“Sometimes you’ve got to just will it in,” Odum said. “It might be a bad shot or the end of the clock, and you have to take a bad one. Some players have that feel. ... I don’t know if it’s really competitiveness or toughness but a combination of those two and just confidence – knowing you can hit that at the end of the game.”
Few players illustrate that better than the Seminoles’ Snaer, who beat Duke and Virginia Tech on clock-beating 3s last season.
In a two-week span this year, the senior hit a 3 at the buzzer against Clemson, hit a 3 with 1.1 seconds left against Maryland and hit a driving layup at the buzzer at Georgia Tech. Then, on Thursday night, Snaer had winner No. 6 by driving for a three-point play with 4.4 seconds left against Virginia.
Snaer said success begins with offseason work to hone his shot. Then it’s trusting himself and staying calm while muscle memory lends a hand.
North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried, for one, said he’d defend Snaer differently late in a close game than someone who hasn’t hit multiple last-second shots. His team faces Snaer in Saturday’s regular-season finale.
“I had already told myself if (last month’s) game with Florida State would’ve come down to the wire, we were doubling Michael Snaer,” Gottfried said. “There’s 5 seconds to go, I don’t care if we leave somebody wide open, we’re going to go get him and make somebody else make the shot. ... I do think it alters how you would defend late in the game.”
Regardless, these proven shooters relish the challenge of hitting shots when the defense knows what’s coming at the end.
And their ranks could grow as the NCAA Tournament draws near.
AP Basketball Writer John Marshall in Tucson, Ariz., contributed to this report.
Eugene Tanner/Associated Press file photo