Sam Mills didn’t know what was wrong.
As a freshman, the La Salle guard shot a blistering 43.5 percent from three-point range. As a sophomore, he finished seventh in the Atlantic 10 in three-point shooting (41.7 percent).
But this year, in his junior campaign, the shots suddenly stopped falling -- so much so that coming into Saturday’s game against Fordham, he was shooting less than 30 percent from beyond the arc.
“I’m used to shooting over 40 percent,” Mills said. “So at the start of the season when I wasn’t shooting like that, most of my coaches just stayed on me as far as getting my shots up.
“My coach always stuck with me,” the junior guard added about La Salle boss John Giannini. “He wants me to shoot, as long as it’s in the flow of the game.”
The confidence Giannini had in his top sharpshooter paid off in a big way Saturday, as Mills led a three-point parade in an 89-53 rout of Fordham at Tom Gola Arena (see Instant Replay).
Mills took eight three-pointers and made seven of them en route to 21 points -– both career highs. As a team, La Salle made 18 threes, which matched a program record set in a Dec. 28, 1991 game vs. Oregon.
“Sometimes you’re confused when a guy doesn’t shoot the way he normally does,” Giannini said. “But you don’t make a big deal out of it. And sooner or later, they get going. That’s what happened with Sam.”
Mills got a whole lot of help from fellow starters Ramon Galloway and Tyreek Duren, both of whom have been hot for most of the season. Galloway went 5-for-7 from three-point range for 19 points and Duren went 4-for-4 to score 16.
Combined, the three starting guards shot a ridiculous 84 percent from long distance, to go along with 15 assists and just three turnovers.
“Things are contagious in life,” Giannini said. “I’ve seen that a lot. Some nights it seems like you can’t get a basket and it’s contagious. And some nights they all go in and it’s contagious.”
In the first half, everything was certainly going in. Playing against a Fordham team that hasn’t won a road game since 2011 and was without the services of one of its best players in Chris Gaston, La Salle made its first eight threes and had 13 by halftime.
The Explorers probably would have broken the program record for three-pointers in a game if Giannini hadn’t taken out his starters midway through the second half with La Salle leading by as many as 45 points.
As it was, walk-on O.J. Lewis tied the record with the team’s 18th three-pointer with just over five minutes to go. With one more chance to get it -– and with fans chanting “one more three” -– La Salle took a shot clock violation on its final possession.
“A record like that no one knows about,” Giannini said. “It’s not something that’s worth doing harm to your relationship with a coach of a program you respect. The record is not a big deal, clearly. I didn’t even know about it. I don’t think anyone else knew either.”
Naturally, Giannini was more concerned about winning the game, and he was pleased to see the Explorers improve to 16-6 overall and 6-3 in the Atlantic 10 by playing well on both ends of the floor.
Despite its poor record and road woes, Fordham (6-18 overall, 2-7 Atlantic 10) has played many conference teams close this season, most recently losing by just four to St. Joe’s on Jan. 30.
But the Rams were never close in this one, trailing by double figures for all but five minutes of the contest. Part of the reason for that, in addition to La Salle’s huge shooting day, was the rocky performance of leading scorer Branden Frazier, who was held to just two points on 1-for-10 shooting.
“Ramon deserves a lot of credit for that,” Giannini said. “That’s where Ramon really excelled. He did a great job against him.”
But the most promising part of Saturday’s win was certainly the play of Mills.
Duren and Galloway are already two of the best guards in the conference, Tyrone Garland is an electric threat off the bench, and Jerrell Wright and Steve Zack are solid big men. If Mills can stay hot, the Explorers will be in much better shape in their quest for the program’s first NCAA tournament berth since 1992 –- which, with seven games left in the regular season, is starting to look pretty good.
“It means a lot because you can’t usually put together a team full of great guards that can play together,” Galloway said of Mills’ breakout game. “Usually someone takes over. But on this team, we’re all levelheaded, we’re all humble and we all play together. And we know we have to get each other going. At this point, it’s great to have Sam back where he’s at.”
Sam Mills didn’t know what was wrong.