It seems almost unfair that a high school basketball game -- highlighted by 31 minutes of fast-break offense, pressing team defense, sky-high rebounds and a resounding dunk or two – can come down to a couple of free throws. That foul shot is just a soft, arching toss from 15 feet with no hands in your face and no worries about an expiring clock. Kids make dozens in a row in their back yard while playing games like H-O-R-S-E. Adults who haven’t shot hoops for years can step up to the line at halftime of a pro basketball game and sink seven-of-10 to win a gift card from a fast-food restaurant.
But while free throws don’t always seem like a big deal in December, they rear their heads all the time in high school basketball’s playoff stretch. It’s something Herndon’s Dorian Johnson, one of the area’s best free-throw shooters, knows well. Last year, at the end of a late-season game against Westfield, he went to the line with the Hornets down one.
“It was a 1-and-1 and if I made both, we would have taken the lead, but I missed,” said Johnson, who has converted almost 83 percent of his attempts this season. “Free throws are definitely at the top of the [priority] list this time of year.”
The intensity of playoff games often works against players who are trying to calm down, take a deep breath, remember their shooting fundamentals and make one or two shots. That’s what happened to Will Gregorits, who told a local reporter he “choked” by missing a couple of free throws late in Lake Braddock’s Conference 7 title game against Woodson last weekend. After AJ Alexander of the Bruins and Andy Stynchula of the Cavaliers traded a pair of foul shots, Gregorits redeemed himself with a last-second lay-up to seal a 62-61 win.
Doug Craig, whose 2013 Northern Region champion Woodson team went deep into the state tournament before eventually losing to Henrico in the semifinals, happened to be on the down side of that game last Friday, but he thinks his team’s experience last year should help with this year’s postseason.
“We’ve had a lot of kids who have played in real important games,” said Craig of players like Stynchula, who made four-of-five against Lake Braddock even though he’s only shooting 65 percent this year. “That’s a kid who’s played in the state semifinal game. That’s a kid who we have a lot of confidence in in that situation.”
When Oakton girls coach Fred Priester was asked about free throws in the playoffs on Sunday night, he was still riled up about his team’s shooting two nights earlier in a 48-47 overtime win over Centreville which clinched the Conference 5 championship. The Cougars went 12-of-27 and had a chance to win or tie at the end of regulation. They made one free throw to send the game into overtime.
“We missed probably 10-of-15 down the stretch,” Priester said. “But fortunately, they weren’t killing it either.” Most coaches aim for their teams to convert between 65-70 percent of their free throws.
Priester, who coaches shooting in the offseason, said he’s been around long enough to see plenty of games decided by a teenager taking free throws.
“They’re free only in regard to the fact that nobody’s guarding you,” he said. “They’re still 15-foot shots with a round ball at a round basket, and it’s kids shooting them. It’s what makes it [unpredictable].”
Monday night, Oakton put those woes behind them, going four-of-four from the line in a 61-37 blowout over Osbourn in the region tournament.
But it’s not only important to make free throws when your team is tied or down by one or two points. A five-point lead can quickly deteriorate if one team goes cold.
“Free throws are huge for putting games away,” said Johnson, whose Hornets routed Patriot 106-52 in their first-round regional tournament game. “Whenever someone goes to the line, we just tell our teammates, ‘Make them pay for fouling you,.’ We don’t say the clichéd stuff like ‘Bend your knees.’”
But almost every coach reminds players of a few things before free throws. Of course, they want to let their players know what play they should run next if the shot goes in or out. But Craig said his go-to advice to the Cavaliers is “slow down. It’s the one time you can dictate how fast the game goes. That’s what the good free-throw shooters do.”
South Lakes coach Andrew Duggan, whose Seahawks withstood a 15-of-16 free-throw shooting night by Hayfield’s Eliet Donley in their conference final, said he tries to replicate the intensity of games during practice by having his players run sprints before shooting, or setting up different scenarios with the game clock. “But it’s practice, still,” he said.
In a recent free-throw-shooting challenge, Zach Pearl won a shootout, and then went 5-of-5 from the line against Hayfield that night, so some practice does pay off.
South County’s Travis Hess, a math teacher by day, sees the irony of one shot getting so much attention.
“Everyone remembers the last play, the last missed or made shot, but a game is a summation of the entire event,” he said. “The missed free throw in the first quarter is just as important as the last one. If you miss the first one, it hurts [too]. It doesn’t seem like a big deal at the time.”
Hess said he knows young players will be affected by the big moments late in the game, “but that’s what makes coaching so exciting. It’s a 32-minute game and whoever is the best team for 32 minutes more often than not wins the game. But there are times where the horn goes off and you say, ‘I can’t believe we won this game. We stole it.”
A nickname for the foul line is “the charity stripe,” and at the end of the game, it’s fitting that what one team sees as theft might seem like a gift to the other.