Pace, 3-point shot drive Hornets

Bunky Harkleroad's Hornets average 93 points and more than 43 3-point attempts per game. Courtesy Sacramento State

Even now, as a senior who has scored more than 1,000 career points for Sacramento State, 5-foot-5 Alle Moreno is easily lost amid bigger bodies on the court. So it's safe to assume that when she was a grade schooler and stole her way onto the court to shoot baskets during halftime of high school games in her hometown of Lodi, Calif., the sight of the basketball in her hands must have looked like someone trying to launch a satellite into space with a slingshot. All the more so when the small girl insisted on heaving the ball from long range, inevitably coming up short.

Until the day she didn't leave it short.

"I think the little girl shooting the far away shot was appealing to me," Moreno said. "It just was a difficult challenge, and I always was excited for a challenge. I didn't want to shoot 2 feet away from the basket; I wanted to shoot 20 feet away."

In such stories are the roots of a team pushing basketball at this level past its boundaries. Like all explorers, success isn't guaranteed, but the trip makes for a good story.

One of the nation's most prolific 3-point shooting teams in recent seasons, Creighton introduced itself to the Big East by attempting a conference-record 43 shots from behind the arc during an overtime win against Georgetown on New Year's Day. Even for a team that averages around 25 3-point attempts per game and also set the single-game record in the Missouri Valley Conference just nine months ago, it was a feat of both endurance and historical significance.

Sacramento State would have a different label for a shooting performance like that.

Moreno and her Hornets teammates would have called it a Wednesday.

One of four teams in the country that entered the weekend averaging more than 90 points per game, Sacramento State stands alone when it comes to 3-pointers. The Hornets average 42.3 3-point attempts per game. In one of those games against UC Irvine on Dec. 14, they attempted 55 3-pointers in 40 minutes. Moreno averages nine attempts per game. As might be expected, that leads the team. As might not be expected, it doesn't lead by much. Teammate Hallie Gennett has just three fewer attempts on the season. Seven players average at least four attempts per game.

The numbers roll on.

Sacramento State makes an average of 14.4 3-pointers per game. Since the shot was introduced, no Division I team averaged even 11 3-pointers per game over the course of a season. Only four teams in that quarter of a century averaged even 10 3-pointers per game for a season.

The outside shooting is the most eye-catching attribute of a style of basketball that prizes pace.

"We're going to try and take the best, fastest possible shot we can take and force the fastest shot for our opponents to take because they probably don't practice that every single day in practice like we do," Moreno said. "We're used to it, while they're not, so they're 50 percent more tired than we are at the same time."

The result is a team that is 11-2 and tied for second place in the Big Sky. Not bad considering it's also a team that didn't have a coach, let alone a style of play, when practice began.

The architect of the unique approach is coach Bunky Harkleroad. However, when October arrived, Harkleroad was still the coach at Glenville State, a Division II school in West Virginia. A finalist this past season for Division II coach of the year, in fact, he was preparing for the new season when a call came from Sacramento State deputy athletic director Bill Macriss. The sudden resignation of San Jose State coach Tim La Kose in late August set off a domino effect that left Sacramento State without a coach when Jamie Craighead left the school for the open job in San Jose.

Within a couple of weeks, someone who had lived almost his whole life in Berea, Ky., save for four years in a spot a little more than four hours away in Glenville, W.Va., packed up and moved to California. Harkleroad's biggest worry, he claimed, was the traffic that awaited him. He now lives close enough to campus to bike. This is not someone who does stop-and-go all that well.

"People here have been so nice," Harkleroad said of the dramatic shift in geography. "It's no different than living in the South, I guess, unless you talk politics or something."

The warm welcome and speedy commute didn't change the reality that the announcement of his hire came exactly one month before the season opener.

Glenville State led Division II in 3-point field goals per game a season ago. In fact, it lapped the field. The gap between first and second in that category was equal to that between second and 166th. The team also ranked fifth in steals and eighth in turnover margin. But Harkleroad's philosophy dates back long before his Division II success, back to his first college coaching job at NAIA Berea College, his alma mater. Early in his time there, losses were more likely than accolades.

"We were really trying to be good at everything, and as a result we weren't really good at anything," Harkleroad said.

He heard about what Dave Arseneault was doing in redefining "up-tempo" at Grinnell College. This was long before current Grinnell guard Jack Taylor scored a record 138 points in one game and brought the program national attention, but Harkleroad made a trip to Iowa to watch Arsenault in action and pick the coach's brain. There have been some tweaks and alterations over the years, but that remains the foundation.

The closest parallel in Division I is the system employed by Oregon coach Paul Westhead, whom Harkleroad cited as one of the influential minds behind the general principles of up-tempo basketball. But Sacramento State goes beyond even that (and beat Oregon 97-85 on the road in the fourth game of the season). The 3-point shot accounts for 39 percent of Oregon's total field goal attempts this season, but it accounts for 51 percent of Sacramento State's field goal attempts.

While all the 3-pointers, the full-court pressure that aims to force 30 turnovers a game, and the emphasis on sending four players to the offensive boards seem swashbuckling on the surface, the system is at its heart coldly logical, mathematical.

"If we're shooting 100 shots and we can shoot 50 of those [3-pointers], that's 250 possible points," Harkleroad explained. "And if we can only let you shoot 80 shots and all those are [2-point field goals], it's 160 possible points. So there is some math."

Left in limbo when Craighead departed, Moreno said players had little more sense of what was happening with the coaching search than the general public, although they did at least get to meet with Harkleroad and another finalist.

Once they learned the name, Moreno and her teammates took to Google and tried their best to be amateur detectives. It was difficult to find fault with the results.

"Everyone knew we didn't want the season to go to waste because we were angry over some situation we couldn't control," Moreno said of losing a coach when they did. "So we just focused on basketball and playing."

It helped that while nowhere near the extremes seen this season, Sacramento State already had a roster recruited to play fast and shoot 3-pointers. Moreno actually averaged 8.3 3-point attempts per game as a junior and 8.5 per game as a sophomore. Junior point guard Fantasia Hilliard, fifth in the nation in assists per game when last week began, was used to running the show -- with an emphasis on the running. New Mexico State transfer Andrea Chenier added another shooter when she became eligible to play. And few freshmen anywhere have filled more of a need than Gennett.

The experience hasn't come without bumps in the road, which tend to be all the more dangerous when encountered at high speed. It wasn't until the last week of November that Harkleroad even completed his coaching staff. Only in recent weeks, with time available off the court over the winter academic break, have players and coaches started to figure each other out beyond what is required to play a game. These are still players for the most part more familiar with the coach who left them than the one now in charge.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that it's these players who are rewriting the record books and winning games while they're at it.

On Dec. 7, one day shy of the two-month anniversary of Harkleroad's introduction, Sacramento State played San Jose State. The Hornets beat their former coach's team 103-99. Moreno scored a season-best 28 points, including success on 4 of 9 shots from behind the arc. The team totaled 21 offensive rebounds and forced 23 turnovers.

"I always thought there was going to be extra meaning in it for me," Moreno said of the encounter with Craighead. "Even the week leading up it was really emotional for me. But once we got in the game, the first three minutes I was a little nervous, but I just started playing. It's another game I don't want to lose. It was a little weird hearing her on the other sideline calling other people's names.

"But it's just something you adapt to. It's change, and it happens to everybody."

Change happened fast at Sacramento State. It hasn't slowed down yet.