In my last year as the head coach at Rhode Island College we went up to Brandeis for a game in the first semester. Both teams were good and expected to be in the NCAA Tournament, so it was a big non-conference game. It went right down to the wire, and we were down one with the ball with :06 on the clock, and we had to go the length of the floor.

We executed our full court play well, getting the ball in moving up the floor and then hitting ahead to the middle. Tom Deciantis, a senior guard, drove the ball hard towards the rim. My team heard from me every day “Great teams get to the rim,” so they knew what the plan was. With :06 on the clock we had enough time to get to the rim.

As Tom drove the ball to the rim he drew a lot of attention – as is always the case late in time and score situations. Everyone is attracted to the ball. Mike Palumbo, another senior, saw his man step up to stop the ball and cut to the rim. Tom hit him with a perfect bounce pass cutting to the rim and Mike laid it in at the buzzer. We won the game by a point.

The execution of that final play was perfect. But the thing is, it wasn’t a set play. Other coaches saw the game on film and gave me credit for drawing up a great play. I saw the officials in that game later and they said the same thing – they loved the play I drew up. But I hadn’t drawn it up. And it wasn’t a set play. I got a ton of credit for this great back door set that won us a big game, and even had people calling me and asking me for the play. But it wasn’t a play that I had drawn up.

I think the biggest key to time and score is to put your players in those situations and teach them how to play. That’s not to say you don’t run set plays ever late in games. You should have your go-to sets ready for different players and situations. But you have to be prepared when your best options are taken away, or when you don’t have enough time. The key to time in score is teaching your kids how to play, and how to make the right plays.

With :06 seconds to play and having to go the length of the floor, we didn’t have time to run a set play. I find that it’s hard to run anything in under :08 seconds. You might have some action in the backcourt that gets you the ball up the floor quicker, but when it comes to the front court with the clock ticking down, you need to have options and teach your kids to make the right read.

Villanova beat North Carolina for the national championship on a full court play late in the game, but it was more actions than a set play. They set a ball screen to get Ryan Arcidiacono some room, and he had a couple of different options depending on what his read was. It was well executed and he made the right read, but it wasn’t a specific set play. It was action to get the ball up the floor with different options.

You can have your go-to sets for late game situations and work on them a lot, but you won’t get to execute them the way you want as much as you think. Getting your best player the exact shot you want is hard. You want to create the right action with your sets and give your players multiple options, then put them in the situations in practice and teach them the right reads.

Time and score is a lot more about teaching your kids how to play than it is about running plays. Have a time and score segment in your practice every day, put the kids in certain situations and let them figure it out. Don’t give them the exact set every time. Let them play, ask them what they saw and figure out why the made the decisions they did. That’s how they’ll get comfortable making those plays in close games.

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