MUNCIE, Ind.— So you haven’t been noticing what Tayler Persons — the Buzzer Beater of Ball State — has been up to? Well then . . .
The 3-pointer with 1.7 seconds left that beat Notre Dame 80-77 in December? That was his.
The 3-pointer with 3.3 seconds showing to sink Valparaiso 71-70 four days later? His, too.
The 3-pointer at 1.3 seconds to shoot down Bowling Green 59-56 last week? Yep.
One junior guard, three daggers. And by the way, all three came from nearly the exact same spot; at the top of the arc, just off to the left. Persons’ magical launching pad.
“It’s just been working out that way. It’s not like that’s my favorite spot,” he said. “Everyone asks me, how does it keep happening?”Good question. Because there’s more. Persons scored on a drive with 2.2 seconds left at Dayton to give his team the lead, but Ball State lost when the Flyers threw a long pass for a layup as time expired. His 3-pointer with 20 seconds left sent a game into overtime at Kent State, his two free throws with 10 seconds left forced overtime against Akron.
Six games, six tying or go-ahead scores in the final 20 seconds, by a player averaging 14.6 points a game. Each one followed by a call to his dad, who “has been through everything with me.”
That old cliché about imagining game-winning shots while playing in your driveway as a kid? It’s as if Persons has spent a good chunk of this season in his driveway.
“I’ve always been that type of person that played thorough confidence and passion,” Persons said. “I’ve went through those shots in my head a thousand times, just trying to make that play at the end of the game. It’s always been the type of player I wanted to be.”
Cardinals coach James Whitford has some thoughts.
“I think there’s two things. He’s got confidence, and I mean this in a healthy way, a little bit of cockiness. He has a lot of self-belief. He’s got the personality that he wants the big stage, he wants the pressure on him when things matter most and wants to be in the position to deliver. And the other thing he has is, he’s a good player. One without the other is not going to get you very far.”
None of this highlight show fodder was exactly by design. “Every one of them was a pick-and-roll play, and the play was designed to give him the choice of what to do,” Whitford said. “In none of them did I tell him, `You have to shoot a 3.’”
Actually, Whitford would rather Persons have driven to the basket against Bowling Green in the final seconds of a tied game. But why kill a theme? “I think at that point,” Whitford said, “he knew what was working for him.”
Clearly, there is a fearlessness to Persons, some of it honed by a tragedy that shook the Ball State program in August, when sophomore Zach Hollywood took his own life. The teammates left behind would never quite be the same. Persons has “Hollywood” and a Cardinal tattooed on his right forearm.
“One thing that this year has taught me, losing my teammate, is tomorrow ain’t promised,” he said. “I can’t get caught up in, what if I miss this shot? I’m going to be down if we lose, but there’s another day tomorrow to live.
“If you’re scared to miss, there’s no point in you taking the shot.”
Things must be going well for a player when it takes a while to summarize all his game-winning baskets.
Notre Dame: “What I remember the most is we were up three, and Matt Farrell hit a 3 to tie it. In my head, I’m like, dang, the No. 9 team in the country and we’ve been beating them all game. When I hit it, I was thinking, I hope to God they don’t score. That’s what happened at Dayton.”
Valparaiso: “I was trying to get to the rim but the guy cut me off so I just thought, I’m going to bring it out and let it go.”
Bowling Green: “It was the best one for me because it was [in] conference and it was a win that we needed. I just hit it and looked up at the fans, and it felt like a great moment.”
All this theater has helped Ball State to a 16-9 record. Imagine what everyone will be thinking the next time the Cardinals have the ball for a last shot. Including the defense.
“Honestly, I wish it didn’t have to come to that,” said Persons, preferring nice, undramatic 20-point victories. “It’s just crazy to even think about it. You don’t see that every day, people hitting game-winning 3-pointers. Maybe once in a season, but not three.
“It’s just a blessing from God.”
And a shooter unafraid to fail.