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Girls basketball: Free throws will be key in the postseason

Boone Grove's Nicole Malouhos shoots free throws near end practice recently Boone Grove High School. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

Boone Grove's Nicole Malouhos shoots free throws near the end of practice recently at Boone Grove High School. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

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Sweat beads roll down your forehead.

Opposing fans start yelling, trying to distract you.

Your legs feel like jelly after three-plus quarters of tough play in a win-or-go-home postseason contest.

Thoughts start creeping into your head.

“It’s only 15 feet away, no one’s guarding me … I can do this.”

Negative thoughts smother that positive reinforcement.

“What if I miss? I can’t let down my teammates. Man, I wish someone else was fouled.”

That scenario is going to happen several times next week when the 38th annual IHSAA girls basketball tournament begins.

So many aspects of the game are going to be emphasized and re-emphasized by coaches — defense, perimeter shooting, blocking out for rebounds, and cutting down turnovers. But the simplest part of the sport— free-throw shooting — will determine many of the close games.

Hit those 15-foot, unguarded freebies in the fourth quarter and you will protect that six- or seven-point lead. Miss them, and you could be watching the rest of the tournament from the bleachers.

Free-throw shooting has already played a part in some key conference games recently.

Example No. 1 — Kouts vs. Hebron on Jan. 15 in the first round of the Porter County Conference Tournament.

Hebron came back from an early double-digit deficit to take a brief lead in the third quarter. The game stayed close with the Hawks cutting the Kouts lead to two with 1:11 left in the game. In the last minute, Kouts starters Jayla Crump and Allie Zimmerle combined to hit 8 of 9 free throws to seal a nine-point victory.

“We’ve lost a lot of games because of free throws,” Kouts coach Ron Kobza said. “We get to the line enough, but that was clutch (by Crump and Zimmerle) hitting those at the end of the game.”

Example No. 2 — Hanover Central at Boone Grove on Tuesday with the coveted PCC Kup and a share of first place in the PCC round robin on the line for Hanover.

The Wildcats were without two starters, but carried a two-point lead into the fourth quarter. Boone, which hasn’t exactly been lighting it up at the charity stripe this season, actually had an OK night at the free-throw line for its standards (5 of 10). But Hanover, which was held scoreless in the fourth quarter, missed 7 of 10 free throws in the second quarter alone, and its only two attempts in the fourth quarter.

Hitting just below half of those misses would have made the difference in a three-point loss.

“We didn’t shoot free throws,” Hanover coach Doug Nelson said. “That’s the game.”

It’s something Wolves coach Candy Wilson is all too familiar with during a 14-6 season that’s had more ups than downs. But some of the ups felt like downs.

Take Boone’s 38-31 victory over Wheeler on Jan. 10 as a prime example. The Wolves won despite going a paltry 6 of 19 from the free-throw line with senior Claudia Cooper having the worst night at 1 of 9.

Cooper laughed it off for the most part the following week as she practiced a new form.

“I just have to remember in my head to go through the steps,” she said.

That includes turning her feet to help her line up with the front of the rim. It’s something Wilson suggested to help offset Cooper’s “issue with her hands” — specifically her thumbs which are more rounded at the end than most people’s. Cooper says that’s “the way they’ve always been.”

Teammate Paige Aguilera, who was a soccer standout in the fall, also has an issue with her hands. She can’t completely rest the ball on her palm to put maximum rotation on it for free throws. But, just like Cooper, Aguilera tries to focus and calm the nerves by using music in her head.

“Shooting free throws is completely different than anything in soccer — no pressure for me in soccer,” Aguilera said. “I just sing songs so I can focus.”

Aguilera prefers the lyrics, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” from Kelly Clarkson’s hit song, while Cooper prefers “Titanium” from Sia.

During a recent practice, Wilson lamented how her squad is much better in that environment as opposed to during games. But isn’t that the same with all teams?

“Our JV team won the free-throw competition at the D-1 Camp in Fort Wayne (over the summer),” she said. “You have the entire camp surrounding the free-throw line yelling as a distraction. (Varsity) uses the same technique, just different kids. If I had an answer why they shoot better in practice than games, I’d be a millionaire.”

Like several region teams, Wilson uses the method of former Valparaiso coach Virgil Sweet. But execution and repetition is the key, especially under the highest pressure of the postseason.

“You fix something and break some bad habits, and then the kids go away from us and play in AAU, and they go back to the bad habits,” Wilson said after a couple of her players made some free throws. “See, it does go in sometimes.”

Some teams are better at making free throws than others, and it doesn’t always compute into wins. The best team in the region statistically is Crown Point at 69 percent. Among the best on the team are Abby Kvachkoff at 80.6, Katie Howarth at 77 and Taylor Equihua at 76. But the Bulldogs are only 5-14 on the season and none of their players are averaging in double figures despite the good free-throw shooting.

Fellow Duneland team Portage is 65 percent as a team with a 13-8 record. The Indians will need to keep that up with a first-round matchup against Merrillville.

Indians coach Chris Seibert says it’s hard work that has led to his team’s improved free-throw shooting.

“We have game goals each game to shoot 70 percent and get there at least 15 times,” he said. “As far as practice goes, we preach repetition and consistency. We try and shoot at different times instead of just shooting them at the end of practice. This allows them to shoot while they are tired. The biggest thing we stress on form is that less is more. We want the girls to eliminate as much movement as possible. We also try to educate them on when they miss to understand why they are missing and what they can do to correct it.”

The Portage player thriving most under Seibert’s guidance is Nicki Monahan, who is shooting an area-leading 83 percent (81 of 98) while averaging 16 points per game.

“Nicki works at it,” Seibert said. “Her shot is very consistent and even when she misses it is right on line. Nicki repeats the same motion each time and is very fundamentally sound.”

The Indians’ upcoming opponent, Merrillville, suffered its first regular-season loss in two years last Friday, and free throws played a big part in that loss at Michigan City. It’s not that one team shot that much better overall in the game — Merrillville was 14 of 21 while MC was 14 of 20. But that one extra miss was key in the 60-57 loss as Victoria Gaines missed the front end of a one-and-one in the last minute when the Pirates had a one-point lead. The Wolves’ Toni Murphy was fouled on the next possession and hit both of her free throws to give MC the lead.

“Our free-throw shooting has been up and down,” said Merrillville coach Amy Govert, whose team shoots at a 60-percent clip for the season. “We’ve been clutch in the big games (before last Friday), but we need to get more consistent.”

Lake Central also has a tough sectional opener against West Side. First-year coach Marc Urban says he’s tried to put the kids in “pressure situations” in practice to mix it up. But, like many coaches, his philosophy stresses that it’s more mental than physical.

“Obviously, the kids aren’t trying to miss,” Urban said. “Every one of the free throws is important, not just the ones at the end of the game. The key for us is actually getting to the line.”

LC junior Chrissy Addison has the perfect attitude, stemming from her coach.

“I consider every free throw in a game the same whether we’re winning or losing,” the guard said, resulting in a high-five from Urban.

Carrying that mantra into the postseason would be wise for any player on any team since one free throw at any point in any game could mean the difference between moving on or going home.

Wipe that sweat off your brow, bend your knees, block out the noise and focus. Your team needs you when you’re alone on that free-throw line.



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