Beating the Buzzer
When the clock is ticking down, the game is on the line, and the ball is in your hands, will you be ready?
By Michael Bradley
Purdue's Katie Douglas is known by coaches and teammates as a player who repeatedly comes through in the clutch.
Anybody who has ever picked up a basketball has replayed the scene. The ball is in your hands. The clock is running down ... five ... four ... you take a dribble ... three ... the crowd roars. ... two ... pump fake ... one ... shoot it ... buzzer ... IT'S GOOD!!!
In the driveway fantasy world, everybody saves the day--or at least gets fouled if she doesn't. It's not always the same in game situations. Players who hit big shots learn how to relax and perform in the clutch. They get to the point where they want the ball with games on the line. They learn to handle the disappointment that comes from not delivering, in return for the adulation reserved for those who succeed.
Some are born confident enough to crave the spotlight. Others become players who thrive in important situations. Heroes are produced in the most unlikely circumstances, so even the most little-used reserve ought to prepare for the big moment.
So, how do you prepare yourself for that last-second, game-winning shot? Essentially, there are three key ingredients: having the confidence that you're the best person to take the shot; practice, practice, practice; and the resilience--the mental toughness--to take that last shot, even if you've blown it before.
We had the chance to talk to some top players who've been both the hero and the goat during those closing seconds. Their advice may come in handy on one of those days when the crowd is counting down the seconds and one more shot will tip the game towards your team.
Give ME the Ball!
Imagine, for a moment, being Nikki Teasley. North Carolina broke the huddle and Teasley tried to forget. Forget about the time. The score. The fans. It wasn't easy. She knew the Tar Heels trailed by three. She knew there were less than five seconds on the clock. In overtime. She knew the ball would be coming to her. She knew the game was in her hands.
Thus the desire for a case of temporary amnesia. If she thought too much about her pending job, Teasley might become a ball of tension, unable to perform. Relax, she told herself.
Pretend it's the first half. We're way ahead. Turn. Catch. Fire.
While Teasley went through her mental gymnastics, the home crowd roared. The play, diagrammed during the timeout by Carolina Coach Sylvia Hatchell, called for Teasley to fake away from the inbounds passer and then come back to the ball. She would get it about 25 feet from the basket and have to uncork a perfect three-pointer, or Carolina was done.
"I tried not to force it," Teasley remembers about the '99 game vs. Virginia. "I didn't want to rush things. I let it come to me. I knew my teammates were depending on me."
Fortunately, everything went perfectly. Teasley caught the ball just beyond the hashmark, turned and faced the basket. Her form was smooth. Her aim true. The ball went in. The buzzer sounded. Tie game. No sweat. Another overtime period was on the horizon. Teasley had faced the pressure and delivered.
"I got a great look, turned around and shot it up there," she says. ."Then I ran around for a while. It made me feel good.
"That was my first buzzer-beater," she continues. "If you make that shot, it's great. You say, 'I can do it.' But if you miss it, you feel like you let everybody down."
Teasley definitely possesses the requisite attitude. That's one of the reasons she wanted the ball. "I have a lot of confidence," she says.
But, to be successful, even the most assured player can't approach a last-shot situation as if it were the biggest moment in her life. The brain can work with or against the body. Start thinking too much and muscles can tighten. The mouth starts to get dry. Those who can approach the big moment in a relaxed fashion enhance their chances of succeeding. A crucial part of being confident is calming the body down enough to make the shot into something comfortable and familiar--even when the game hangs in the balance.
"I shot it like I normally would shoot," recalls Teasley. "I didn't think too much about it. I just let the moment come to me. There's nothing else you can do. If you worry, you put more pressure on yourself, and you become nervous."
Former Rutgers guard Shawnetta Stewart (drafted by the WNBA Orlando Miracles this summer) knows that confidence includes another important facet. Not only do you have to treat those anxiety-producing moments as if they're straight out of practice, you have to want to be in that position in the first place. When your teammates know that the clock is running out, the confident player wants someone to pass her the ball.
"I'm the type of player who wants to be in the clutch position," Stewart says. "It's all about taking advantage of the moment."
One moment Stewart took advantage of came during her sophomore season, when she hit a 50-footer that gave the Scarlet Knights a three-point victory. Stewart had been put in the game for defensive purposes and found herself with the ball beyond halfcourt, the game tied, and the clock running down. As time expired, she let loose a left-handed rainbow that swished through and gave the Knights a victory.
"A lot of players might have held onto the ball and let the game go into overtime," she says. "I figured, 'Why not kill a team when you have the chance?'"
Purdue senior Katie Douglas is that kind of player as well. It started for her in high school, when she stole the ball during the Indiana state high school semifinals, hitting a layup that won the game for Perry Meridian High School over rival Center Grove.
During her freshman year at Purdue another opportunity arose. Douglas had the ball against Illinois. Time was running out. The game was tied. Staring her in the face was the Illini's Ashley Berggren, who had burned Douglas for a game-winner earlier in the season.
Instead of dwelling on their previous face-off, Douglas went to the bucket on Berggren - and beat her for a layup. Purdue by two. Seven seconds later, Douglas hit a free throw to ice a 71-68 win.
That was just the start of a flurry of late-game deliveries by the Boilermaker. A week later, against Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten tourney, Douglas hit a runner on the left side with 0:06 to play, giving Purdue a 61-60 win. In her sophomore year, she sent the Boilers into overtime against Penn State by scoring with just 0:03 to go and then iced the win in the extra stanza by penetrating into the lane and hitting with 10 ticks remaining. Want something done last-minute? Call Douglas.
"When I was growing up and playing in my driveway, I would imagine myself in those situations," Douglas says. "I would always hope that one day, I would be in that situation.
"You have to want to be in that position, where you don't want to lose," she continues. "You have to take responsibility for it. You have to keep practicing and want to have the ball with the game on the line."
Another player who wants her teammates to depend upon her is Arkansas' Wendi Willits. She has stepped into the role in order to make life easier for her fellow Razorbacks. "It wasn't that I wanted the ball; I expected it," she says. "A lot of my teammates were afraid to take the last-second shot. I wanted to take the pressure off them."
Practice Makes Confidence
Where do these players get all their confidence? A major part of the confidence they have has been developed from rehearsing those last minute shots--over, and over, and over again. The mind and body are intimately connected. Teach the body the moves, and the brain develops the attitude that it can get the job done.
While no practice can replicate the excitement of last-second shots, all of the players interviewed for this article preached the importance of preparing one's skills and one's self mentally for the challenge. Coaches and teammates can offer encouragement (e.g., Douglas does remember when then-Purdue coach Nell Fortner told her she was ready to take on the clutch role), but the player herself still must prepare for the moment, often alone.
Teasley, for example, admits to spending many solitary moments in quiet gyms counting the seconds down and then launching the big shot. There were no fans in the stands and no hands in her face, but the practice paid off. "When you make those shots in practice, you're ready at game time," she says. "I always give myself a little cheer when I'm in the gym by myself if I hit one of those shots."
Growing up, Willits would retreat to the practice court when the boys wouldn't let her play with them. Part of her practice routine became the last-second shot. The work paid off quickly. By the time she was in high school, Willits was clearly the go-to person for her team.
But Willits has worked on all aspects of her game in practice. She hit a game-winner against Penn State as a sophomore, not because she spent hours practicing to make last-second shots but because she worked hard on her entire game and took the floor feeling as if she were ready for anything that might happen. "If you work hard in practice, it all comes naturally," Willits says. "You want to be the one to do it."
It's a good thing Heather Owen practiced the moves. The Washington Mystics' center/forward is not a starter for the up-and-coming WNBA club, but she practices like she is and fills a valuable reserve role. Every day, Owen must hone her skills for the difficult job of coming off the bench. "It's a Catch-22," she says. "You don't want to get in there and just start firing away, but you have to be ready to come in and help when you're needed."
During the 1999 season, the Mystics trailed the Orlando Miracle by one, and Owen was on the floor for the last-shot set. She wasn't, however, the first option. She wasn't the second option, either. Or probably the third. "They didn't set up the play, saying, 'Heather's going to take over,'" Owen says. "Usually, it's [Washington stars] Nikki McCray or Chamique Holdsclaw."
On this occasion, both McCray and Holdsclaw were covered, and the ball came to Owen just above the foul line. Her spot. She looked to pass, but saw that the shot clock was running down. The defense collapsed off her, figuring a reserve wouldn't want to step up and drill the game-winner. Bad idea.
"I had to shoot it," Owen says. "No one was near me." Even though Owen had struggled through the first half of the game, missing some easy tries, she didn't worry. This was a shot she had taken thousands of times in practice, a straight-on 18-footer. "As soon as I let go of it, I knew it was going in," Owen says.
The practice paid off in Owen's first game-winner since high school. Owen may not have been the first option, but because she had prepared herself to succeed, she was ready. Fans may not have considered her the best person to take a clutch shot, but Owen had the confidence to do it, thanks to her diligent practice.
"You need to go into a game confident that you have prepared yourself," Owen says. "You have to take care of all the things you can control. You have to be in shape. You have to work on things you're not particularly good at. That will build your confidence."
Okay, so you've practiced 'till your arms ache, worked on your confidence until you've convinced yourself that you can fly, and gotten your teammates to acknowledge that you are the go-to player in the closing seconds. Does this mean you're going to hit every game-winning, fist-pumping, "play-of-the-day" last shot? Unfortunately not. There are still going to be games where the ball just won't drop through the basket no matter how much confidence you launched the shot with. And good players know this, including Stanford's Lindsey Yamasaki.
In her freshman year, she nailed a three-pointer with 0:13 to play, giving the Cardinal an upset win at UCLA. But it was a dose of vindication for Yamasaki, who still remembers missing the front end of a last-second one-and-one a couple summers ago that cost her AAU team a big tournament win. Because Yamasaki had spent much of the summer playing volleyball (she is a member of the Cardinal varsity in that sport, too), it would have been easy for her to rationalize the miss as a by-product of her time away from the court. She wouldn't do that. "I was disappointed, because I can make that shot," Yamasaki says. "I have always thrived on big-game situations."
And while it's great to hit the last shot, life goes on, even if you don't come through. There are always chances for redemption, as Yamasaki and Douglas proved. "I know there's going to be a time when I don't come through," Douglas says. "But you still have to want the ball in that situation. You have to be positive, so that next time, you'll have confidence."
Douglas is right. Often, it's most important that a player wants to be the one to take the last-second shot. That shows self-esteem and an inner assurance that many don't have. So, prepare to be the one who steps up. Be positive. Take the shot.
"Even if you do miss, there's always going to be another game," Willits says. "You'll still wake up the next day. If you miss, you make up for it the next time."
Author Michael Bradley is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.
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