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Living in 3-point land: Wagner’s Kuca breaks 3-point record, reaches 1,000 career points

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Mount Marty's Ali Kuca, right, dribbles against a Northwestern defender during a GPAC women's basketball game at Cimpl Arena. (James Cimburek / Yankton Press and Dakotan)

YANKTON -- Mount Marty coach Todd James Schlimgen put his own twist on an old saying: Practice leads to permanence. Ali Kuca took that to heart.

Mount Marty’s senior sharpshooter has put in plenty of practice from beyond the arc, as she practically lives there during games. Her shooting stroke has become as permanently successful as any in Lancer history, culminating in her breaking the program record with 286 career 3-pointers.

Kuca, a 36.3 percent career 3-point shooter, took over the top spot from assistant coach and former teammate Logan Wagner against Dordt (Iowa) on Jan. 8 when she went 6-for-12 from deep for a season-high 25 points.

“It was really special,” said the former Wagner High School standout. “I did not expect that going into college. Of course you always want the team to be successful and I still want that, so that never crossed my mind until the beginning of this year when the topic got brought up jokingly with me and (Wagner).”

Wagner, a Parkston native, didn’t want to jinx Kuca or add extra pressure, but she knew the sharpshooter was easily motivated when people gave her a hard time about something. With Kuca 42 3-pointers behind Wagner’s 275 before the season, Wagner joked that Kuca wouldn’t reach it.

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“I would just laugh at her and say, ‘I’m trying, I’m trying,’ ”said Kuca, who also became the 25th Lancer to reach 1,000 career points in program history.

Kuca has 11 more regular season games to distance herself from Wagner, whose shooting attracted defenses and left the Dante native open as a freshman. When Wagner graduated and Kuca’s identity as a 3-point specialist grew, she had to adapt.

Her Lancer career has been all about exemplifying her strengths, though.

Schlimgen’s system is predicated on 3-point shooting, and the confidence needed to be a consistent outside shooter only grew when Kuca’s shooting ability led to 24.6 minutes per game and 22 starts as a freshman. The jitters left as she became more comfortable.

Kuca also developed a short memory, one that even impresses the former record holder.

“You always hear shooters that you have to have a short memory, and she has one of the best,” Wagner said. “She’ll miss five in a row and she thinks the next ones going in, and that’s what makes her so good. She’s better at that than, I think, anybody I’ve ever met. She’s better at that than I ever was. “

From playing with her as a freshman, to coaching her the past two seasons, Wagner has tried to offer advice. Her biggest has been to keep moving and offering tips on using screens to avoid being a “sitting duck,” especially when teams throw a box-and-one defense at her.

“I think Logan has helped her realize when and where to get looks, and how to handle different defenses,” Schlimgen said. “I think having that resource there was really good for Ali.”

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The screens, passes and plays run for her are why Kuca thinks of the record as a team effort. It’s partly why she’s been able to attempt 787 of her 984 (80 percent) shots from 3-point range. Still, she’s never shot below 34 percent from deep and is shooting a career-high 38.4 percent this season for 10.9 points per game.

Kuca admitted she’s tried to attack the basket more often as a senior to force defenders to play off of her. Wagner, who felt she was able to put the ball on the floor a little more often, feels that’s the biggest difference between their similar games, even if the Parkston native didn’t drive much more often.

“Our SID made a joke to us after she broke (the record), ‘Gosh, I thought (Logan) spent a lot of time on the 3-point line, but Ali does,’ ” said Wagner, who attempted 61.5 percent of her career shot attempts from deep. “But that’s a compliment to her. She knows what she’s good at.”

Wagner returns to Mount Marty after Concordia stop

After graduating Mount Marty as the program’s career leader in 3-pointers made and a standout golfer, Logan Wagner became a graduate assistant for the Great Plains Athletic Conference foe Concordia (Neb.) golf team.

She spent a year in Seward, Nebraska, as she also helped run the shot clocks for the basketball programs and got to scrimmage with the women’s basketball team. When the Lancers asked her to come back, she couldn’t resist.
“I left Concordia early to come back up here, and I think that says a lot about Mount Marty and how I felt about it,” Wagner said. “The opportunity to come back and do both sports … it was kind of a no-brainer for me.”

Wagner is in her second year as the head golf coach and an assistant on the women’s basketball team. A three-time all-conference basketball player and four-time all-conference golfer, Wagner called basketball her “first love” when asked why she went back to the sport.

She doesn’t know if continuing to coach golf and basketball is a realistic long-term possibility, but she’s already made an impact on the women’s team.

“There was that type of uncertainty getting a new coach -- you didn’t know who they were going to be, what they were going to bring to the program,” Kuca said. “When they announced it was Logan, I know she is really easy to talk to, so I can go to her for advice and tips. She came into the program ready to give us the advice she learned playing college basketball.”

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