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Gordon Monson: BYU basketball’s love of 3-point shooting has helped and hurt the Cougars

Poor shooting doomed the Cougars in an 81-67 loss to Texas Tech in the Big 12 tournament — but they’ll keep shooting next week.

(Charlie Riedel | AP) BYU guard Jaxson Robinson (2) looks to pass around Texas Tech guard Chance McMillian (0) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinal round of the Big 12 Conference tournament, Thursday, March 14, 2024, in Kansas City, Mo.

When BYU trailed Texas Tech by 19 points at the half of their quarterfinal matchup in the Big 12 tournament on Thursday, there was bad news — most of it really bad for the Cougars — and there was good news — in theory, anyway.

In a game with the ongoing pursuit of a league championship on the line — the 3-point line — so much of it centered on the long ball and the application of simple math: three is more than two. But three is nothing when a team flubs up shots as though it were heaving lumber into the back of a 2-ton.

And BYU was flubbing and heaving.

The benefit of depending on 3-point shooting to fulfill your destiny is that if you’re trailing big, the aforementioned math can catch you up in a hurry. The Cougars were in a hurry. On the other hand, the reason they were in that hurry is because their deep shooting had betrayed them throughout the first half.

That’s the other thing about depending on the 3, it’s a fickle, sometimes cruel mother. If you’re not quite good enough, you can’t trust it. It can hug and kiss you one minute or one game, make you feel like the game is easy, like you’re a prince, and it can punch you in the kneecaps the next, make the game oh-so hard, make you look pathetic. And then, it will laugh at your pain.

Noted NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy once told me the reason 3-point shooting has become so important at all levels of basketball is because it affects everything at the offensive end, and sometimes at the other end, too.

“The 3-point shot is so important and vital … to spread the floor, to give your best players as much room as possible, to get to the basket, to get to the free-throw line. If you don’t have shooting, it’s really hard to put together enough good possessions.”

So, BYU hoped its dependence on — and on some nights, some games, some halves at least, its proficiency with — the deep ball could rescue it against the Red Raiders.

With five minutes remaining, that 19-point lead had been sliced down to seven, but … that’s as close as the Cougars could come, as Texas Tech used some accurate shooting from distance to blow its lead back to 13. And the ultimate favorable outcome for the Red Raiders — 81-67 — was all but sealed.

Back in the day, Magic Johnson used to reflect on his younger years of playing hoop in pickup games and he said the thing he noticed was the team that shot more shots closer to the basket usually stayed on the floor.

Not anymore. Not in modern global basketball. Not in BYU’s world.

The Cougars embraced the cliche that they would live by the 3, preferring to ignore the second part of that hackneyed saying, the part about dying by the 3.

BYU died in Kansas City. Its illusions of winning the Big 12 tournament ducked out down a back alley against Texas Tech, dressed out as delusions. The Cougars will live again with a berth in the NCAA Tournament, where they will rely as heavily as ever on deep shots. It’s what they do.

But for them to have any hope in the madness, they must shoot better from beyond the arc than 7 of 35, which were their miserable numbers on Thursday. They must do everything necessary in the lead-up to those shots in order to actually make more of them. BTW, Texas Tech put up nearly half as many bombs, but made just short of 50 percent of them.

Some of the credit for the Cougars’ inefficiency goes to the defensive effort thrown up by Tech, crowding BYU’s shooters, playing physical enough on ball screens to derail one of the best shooting teams in college basketball. But too often, the Cougars had completely open looks that flew long, short, left, right, that caromed hither and thither, frequently into the aggressive hands and arms of Red Raider rebounders.

Like the flip side of what Van Gundy said, when a 3-point-shooting team chucks bricks, it gums up everything else on attack, making it much more difficult to get to the rim, to find space, to conjure the confidence necessary to play at a peak level. It shakes a team. It steals energy away at the defensive end, as well. And somewhere in the fog of so many misses, defeat descends.

That’s what happens to outfits — and there are a lot of them these days, transforming a basketball evolution into a revolution — that hang so much of their success on dusting the net from deep. BYU has lived off those shots this season.

Those same shots, heaves not to be trusted, deserted them, took their revenge on this occasion, as is, now and again, their way, and the laughter in a lopsided loss stung all the more.