Terps cash in on free throws

Early-season woes distant memory as UM steps up at line

Ncaa Tournament

March 28, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - There were times early in the season when Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams avoided talking publicly about the problem, which some players said was spreading like a virus.

There were times when the Terrapins resembled a horror show on the foul line, but those days appear to be long gone.

Whether it's due to endless repetition in practice or mechanical adjustments made by certain offenders under the watchful eye of Williams, or whether it's another sign of the maturity that has helped put Maryland on the brink of winning its first national championship, the Terps are looking deadly on the line at the perfect time.

Watching Maryland (30-4) clinch its second straight NCAA tournament regional title last weekend by shooting free throws with such calm and consistency provided quite a contrast to the season's first month. Back then, the Terps were having trouble making half of their unguarded, 15-foot attempts. Even steady, proven hands like Byron Mouton and Tahj Holden were not immune to the virus.

The Terps have been cured for some time. Their turnaround began in December, progressed through the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule and has never looked stronger in March. Ask Kentucky and Connecticut, which watched helplessly at the Carrier Dome at Syracuse University, as No. 1 seed Maryland sealed the East Regional crown with textbook foul shooting.

Over their two victories, each of which was not decided until the closing minutes, the Terps made 52 of 59 free-throw attempts, or 88.1 percent. And they were spectacular in crunch time, making 94.3 percent of their attempts in the second half. Maryland missed only two second-half free throws in 35 attempts last weekend.

"We understand this is a key part of winning basketball games. It's that time. Guys are just stepping up to the stripe and being mature about it," junior guard Drew Nicholas said.

"I'm very fortunate to have a nice form and a nice release. Concentrate and keep your eye on the target. It should be easy for me," added senior guard Juan Dixon, who has rarely been part of the problem and led the ACC by shooting 90.8 percent at the line.

"After the [Connecticut] game, I looked at the stat sheet and saw that [center] Lonny [Baxter] went 15-for-18. I can't get over how much the big guys did at the free-throw line. For a guy like Lonny, who struggled during the season, to go to the line with all of that confidence like he was shooting 90 percent on the year, says a lot about him and our coaching staff."

More than anything, the reversal of Maryland's foul-line fortunes - the Terps made 53.4 percent of their free-throw attempts in five November games, shot 73.4 percent against the ACC over January and February, and are shooting 86.1 percent in March - can be traced to the big boys.

Take Baxter, who gets to the foul line more than any other player and has never shot higher than 59.4 percent in a season. During the postseason, the 6-foot-8 senior has made 32 of 40 free throws (80 percent) to raise his season average to a career-high 63.2 percent.

Take sophomore forward Chris Wilcox, who seemed to be heaving the ball at the rim early on, and had a 28 percent efficiency rate to show for it through six games. Wilcox responded by shooting 62.3 percent against the ACC, and chipped in a 10-for-12 showing last weekend to push his season average to 58.6 percent.

Then there's Holden, who had never made more than 67.2 percent of his free throws before this year, struggled early on, but is now making 81.8 percent. Even Mouton, a career 75 percent shooter before the season, was stuck around the 50 percent mark in December before climbing back to where he belongs.

"I think our inside guys have been the key. You're going to be a good free-throw shooting team if you have Juan Dixon, Steve Blake, Byron Mouton and Drew Nicholas shooting a lot of your free throws," Williams said.

"Lonny is going to get fouled a lot because of his position and the way he plays. Look at the pressure he was under against Connecticut. Lonny and Chris weren't great, natural free-throw shooters. They've put a lot of time in."

Williams used to leave free-throw shooting coaching to assistant Billy Hahn, who left Maryland to take over at La Salle. Williams took over the chore this season, and immediately was faced with that early trouble.

Williams said his first task was not to be too hands-on or critical. But if there was a glaring hitch in somebody's technique - such as Baxter's too-quick release or occasional failure to lock in on the rim before shooting, or Wilcox's tendency to abandon a follow-through or fail to get any arc on his foul shots - jump on it and fix it.

Each player takes 50 to 75 free throws in practice, and every foul shot by every player is videotaped. Williams also creates pressure situations for the players to get comfortable with at the line, and forces the team to take foul shots late in practice.

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