Ethan Happ is not alone in his free throw misery.
He has plenty of company in the University of Wisconsin women’s basketball team.
While Happ’s much-chronicled misadventures at the line have been the cause of considerable consternation among UW men’s faithful, the women’s team has been quietly suffering from a historic level of free throw futility.
The Badgers (10-6, 1-3 Big Ten) are shooting just 54 percent from the free throw line heading into Sunday’s game against No. 25 Indiana (14-2, 3-1) at the Kohl Center.
At 54 percent, the Badgers rank No. 344 among 349 NCAA Division I programs this season, better only than the likes of Alcorn, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Texas Southern, North Carolina A&T and Alabama A&T.
It’s worse than the lowest free throw percentage in school history, .545 set in 1975-76, the second season of the program’s existence.
“It’s unacceptable,” coach Jonathan Tsipis said. “Top to bottom, you can’t shoot free throws the way that we’re shooting them.”
Like every team, the Badgers spend considerable time shooting free throws in practice in all kinds of circumstances. The free throws are all charted and each player must shoot 75 percent each day.
The problem, as Happ could attest, is translating that level of efficiency over to the games.
“We’re getting up tremendous amounts of free throws,” said senior Marsha Howard, whose .479 mark from the line is the worst among the team’s starters and a significant drop-off from last year’s .628 percentage. “I just don’t know where the mental block comes in when it comes to game time and the number of free throws we miss. Yes, it’s hurting us tremendously.”
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Assistant coach Craig Carter equates free throw shooting to a golf swing.
“You have to go through the same motions every time,” Carter said. “It’s all about being able to lock into repetition. When I played I used to always have mental cues in my head. I would tell myself, elbow in, wrist straight down, to remember those things to help me shoot better.”
During practice, Carter likes to stand behind the shooter to see if she’s going straight down and straight up with the shot, where her hand is finishing and if she’s finishing on her toes. But he knows that technique is only part of the equation.
“It’s all mental,” Carter said. “We press because we know how much we need these free throws. People get up there and say, ‘Don’t miss’ as opposed to ‘I’m about to make these.’ If you lead with positivity, more times than not you’re going to be positive.”
On the flip side, he sees the pressure grow as the missed free throws pile up during a game.
“When you miss two and then I get up there and I need these two and I’m thinking she missed her two, I can’t miss mine,” Carter said. “That leads to two more misses. Now somebody else gets up there and says we’ve missed four in a row, I can’t miss mine and they’re pressing.
“Don’t press. Relax. You see golfers relax their shoulders and then they hit the ball. They quiet the noise.”
That approach has worked for junior Kendra Van Leeuwen, whose 70 percent shooting is the best among those who have shot more than five free throws this season. That’s a significant improvement from her 42 percent shooting as a freshman.
“I think it’s just about having confidence and getting the repetitions in,” Van Leeuwen said. “It’s knowing your shot is going to go in, not hoping that it will. I think I’m just taking more time and taking a breath. In my freshman year I think I rushed it and I let my nerves get ahead of me.”
Sophomore Niya Beverley (.522) is confident that it’s only a matter of time before the team’s foul shooting in practice will carry over to games.
“It’s just something we have to continue to work on,” Beverley said. “We’ll get better at it. We just have to remind ourselves when we get in a game that we can do it. We’re able to shoot 75 percent or better in practice. We can do that in a game as well, as long as we focus.”