The golden rule at the three men’s first-round Big Sky tournament games in Boise Wednesday was simple: live by by the 3 — or be killed by it.
In game after game, the winners ran away behind a barrage of long-distance shots.
Sacramento State and Southern Utah, winners over Northern Arizona and Idaho State, respectively, both shot 60 percent or better from behind the arc.
Montana State, which pulled out a late victory over Idaho in the last men’s game of the day, made just under half of its 3-pointers at 11-for-24, but got big shots when it mattered from the trio of Tyler Hall, Harald Frey and Keljin Blevins.
The 3s were falling at such a high rate that they erased most other statistical concerns. Free throws, turnovers, second-chance points — they don’t matter much when a team makes 73.3 percent of its 3-pointers, as Southern Utah did by going 11-for-15 against Idaho State.
“One of the things that we wanted to do was try to take away the 3,” Idaho State coach Bill Evans said. “They were 11-for-15 from 3. I don’t think they could make 11 shots if we weren’t trying to guard them. … 11-for-15 from 3, that’s hard to overcome.”
The star bomber of that game was the Thunderbirds’ Brandon Better, who made three straight triples in a 90-second stretch in the first half to reduce a nine-point Bengals lead to nothing. He finished 5-of-6 from deep.
The shooting of Sac State’s backcourt was arguably more impressive, especially in the first half.
Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa had four 3s on four attempts in the first 10 minutes of the game, before Marcus Graves took over by going 3-for-3 from deep in the last 10 minutes of the period.
Altogether, the Hornets’ guards were 7-for-7 in the first half from 3. They finished 11-for-18 and the team was 12-for-20.
“It’s huge for us,” Graves said. “When [Mauriohooho-Le’afa] hits shots, it opens everything else up for the rest of us.”
Against Idaho, Montana State came back from a 10-0 deficit thanks to Hall’s shooting. The all-time conference leader in 3-pointers made back-to-back 3s early to cut into the Vandals’ lead.
Frey’s second 3 of the half gave the Bobcats their first lead at 24-22, and later on, it was Hall’s turn again, as he went back-to-back again to help Montana State to a halftime lead.
The success of the 3-point shooters was a little unexpected. The CenturyLink Arena in Boise is a neutral venue, and teams had very little practice time to get used to the sight lines. The last three years at the Big Sky Tournament in Reno, it was a matter of fact that players would often shoot poorly at the beginning of games as they got used to the cavernous arena.
In Boise, the first row of stands is far behind the baskets.
The CenturyLink Arena also has an NBA 3-point line painted on the floor. Several players said that required an adjustment period.
“We try to space the floor a lot, so seeing that line kind of messes with your head a little bit,” Hall said. “As the game went on, we adjusted to it. … It is a shooter’s arena, you can tell. I always just let it fly. I feel like Reno was a little more spaced-out, more open, so I enjoyed this.”
If Hall is right about it being a shooter’s arena and the trend keeps up, it could have implications for the rest of the tournament.
3-pointers are an underdog’s best friend. A good shooting night means it doesn’t matter how many other things a superior opponent does better. They’ve already contributed to one upset, when Sac State knocked off Northern Arizona, considered a trendy dark horse going into the tournament.
Could more be on the way?