Rolling Hills High School opened the basketball season as a long shot. Now the Titans are considered a leading contender for the Bay League and CIF 3-A titles largely because of another long shot--the three-point goal.
"We believe in it," said Coach Cliff Warren. "We have it in our offense, and we don't hesitate to shoot it."
At West Torrance, Coach Dan McGee regularly conducts a mock game during practice in which one team tries to erase a six-point deficit with one minute to play by working for three-point shots.
"It can either put you in a ball game or take you out," McGee said.
Serra coaches are so confident in James Moses' ability to shoot the three-pointer that they put few restrictions on the talented forward. "It's just a normal shot for James," said assistant Dwan Hurt.
Whether you love it or hate it, the three-point shot is making an impact in prep basketball. Some teams are using the first-year rule more than others, but everyone has been affected.
"We try to play more of an inside game," said Inglewood Coach Vince Combs, "but other teams seem to hit them on us."
Some coaches contend the three-point shot, which must originate from beyond the 19-foot, 9-inch arc, is too short. Others say the three-pointer is creating new areas of strategy. When should it be taken? How should teams defense it?
Palos Verdes Coach John Mihaljevich believes the answers will come.
"It seems like a lot of teams are still figuring out the three-point shot through game experience," he said. "As we get into league season, it will be more of a factor because teams will be more familiar with it.
"From what I've seen, including ourselves, teams have a tendency to rush the shot, particularly when coming from behind late in a game. I think the teams that will benefit most from it are the ones that can effectively use it in the closing minutes to overcome a deficit."
Warren takes a more aggressive approach to the three-point shot at Rolling Hills:
"We don't necessarily use it to catch up. We use it right out of the gate. We seem to shoot more in the first half."
Rolling Hills might have the best group of three-point shooters in the area. Through last week, guards Steve Clover, Mark Tesar and Ron Dinnel had combined for 49 three-pointers in nine games. The Titans are off to an 8-3 start, which is not bad considering that they returned no starters from last year's CIF 3-A runner-up team and were expected to rebuild.
Warren says he was overjoyed when the National Federation Basketball Rules Committee adopted the three-point shot last March.
"The second I heard they were considering it, I was excited because I knew the players I had all had that range," he said. "I was always against it, but now I think it's fun.
"I think it's had a major effect on the game. It will have more of an effect as coaches see the significance of it on offense and defense. We're just getting our bearings on what to do on defense."
Some coaches feel the three-point shot has a demoralizing effect on the defensive team. But for the team that makes it, the shot produces a quick fix of adrenalin.
"I think it's exciting for the fans," said Torrance Coach Carl Strong. "It makes basketball a totally different game than before."
Here are some of the South Bay's top three-point shooters:
Leuzinger forward Keith Pullen. The 6-foot-4 senior leads the area with 26 three-pointers in 10 games. He hit seven in a row in one quarter on Dec. 15 against South Bay Lutheran. "He doesn't take the shot that much," said Coach Phil Sherman. "He probably will be looking more for it now."
Clover and Tesar of Rolling Hills. Clover, a 6-2 sophomore, leads the Titans with 19 three-pointers. "He is the best shooter around, period," said Warren. Tesar, a 6-2 junior, has 17 three-pointers and tends to get them in bunches. He was 3 for 3 in the first half Dec. 15 against St. Bernard.
Moses of Serra. The 6-6 senior, who is averaging more than 30 points a game, has 15 three-pointers in eight games. A bulked-up Moses is scoring more from the inside this season or he would have more three-pointers, according to Serra coaches.
South Torrance guard Larry Modena. The 5-11 senior has one of the area's highest three-point shooting percentages, hitting 14 of 26 attempts (54%) in nine games. "He's very selective," said Coach Doug Mitchell.
West Torrance guards Phil Bendik and Denny Hocking. The Warrior back court has combined for 28 three-pointers in 11 games. Hocking leads with 16, including a 5-for-5 performance Dec. 3 against St. Bernard.
Torrance guard Brian Sabunas. The senior sharpshooter, who has been slowed by a sprained ankle, hit 11 three-pointers in the first two games of the Torrance Tournament this week.