Editor’s note: Due to the rather sensitive and potentially embarrassing content in this column, the names of all individuals and teams, and any other identifying labels have been omitted to protect the guilty.
I was sitting near the visitors’ bench and scorers’ table at a recent game that veered into the always entertaining unintentional-intentional foul stage.
It’s that tried-and-true, late-game strategy of one team fouling to stage a comeback. With each foul, the trailing team stops the clock and creates a chance to cut into the deficit if the team in the lead misses the free throws. So much fun.
Anyway, it’s crunch time in this recent game and a coach from the trailing team asks his scorekeeper for the name of the opponent’s worst foul shooter.
First thing that popped into my head? Pick anyone, pal — you can’t go wrong.
Horrible, I know.
It’s just that, for whatever reason, poor free throw shooting has stood out this season like ... well, like an airball from the foul line.
“Everywhere ... it’s horrendous,” said Danville coach Steve Moser. “Horrendous.”
There’s a Valley team on the postseason bubble that may throw away its district berth at the foul line. According to results reported to (and by) The Daily Item, the team is shooting 54 percent from the line. The team has absorbed only one loss in which it could have made up the difference with foul shots, but it’s difficult to win consistently when free throws are little better than a 50/50 proposition.
There’s another team, shooting about 48 percent by our count, that’s lost six games that can be blamed on poor foul shooting. Those wins would have made it a shoo-in for the playoffs.
There was an area team that missed a pair of free throws at the end of a tied game and then lost in overtime.
A successful local team boasts one of the area’s best foul shooters (77 percent), but the other girls in the varsity rotation shoot less than 48 percent combined. Guess who among them is going to the line at the end of tight games and who isn’t.
Out of curiosity I added up all the foul shots taken in the 13 girls games I’ve covered so far this season. The combined total was 243 makes in 431 free-throw attempts, or 56.4 percent.
Better than I expected, but borderline horrendous.
In the four most recent games I’ve covered, the percentage was a dismal 47.6. Maybe that’s why we’re talking about it. Fresh wound.
The interesting thing is, whether you bring it up or they broach the subject, coaches always say some variation of the same thing about poor foul shooting: I don’t get it. It’s not like we don’t practice them. We shoot them all the time.
“I mean, we shoot tons of them. Every night. Tons,” said Moser, whose team shoots better than 60 percent. “Kids just don’t concentrate. I don’t know if they don’t realize the value of it. I just don’t know.”
“It’s up here,” said Shikellamy coach Lew Dellegrotti, pointing to his head, “because these kids practice foul shots. It comes down to concentration.”
Dellegrotti should know. He had two daughters, Megan and Lara, who combined for more than 4,000 points at Berwick High. They both shot free throws so well (high 80s in high school, plus Megan shot 84.5 percent in four seasons at Delaware), that I often wondered what Lew did to them. Did he force them to make 25 in a row before they could leave the gym? Or eat dinner?
“They practiced them, but they were tough competitors and it was a focus,” Lew Dellegrotti explained. “They always thought, These are free points you’re giving me and I’m taking advantage. That’s was the mind set.
“They worked at it. It’s repetition, yes, but it’s having confidence in yourself and that focus. It’s between your ears.”
When I was a kid, I was scared straight by “Happy Days.” You may remember the episode: Richie Cunningham comes off the bench for an injured player and hits the game-winning shot in a semifinal game and basks in the hero’s glow. Then, as a starter in the championship game, he goes to the line with one second left and his Jefferson High team down a pair. He makes the first foul shot and misses the second. I always thought that “agony of defeat” line was better paired with Richie’s miss than that ill-fated ski jumper.
While I couldn’t do much to prevent striking out to end a baseball game (another sports-related dread of mine), I could tilt the odds of ending up like Richie.
You know, coaches, that 1977 episode is probably on DVD.
Scott Dudinskie covers girls basketball for The Daily Item. Email questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.