As Shelby Moats sank the first of two free throws against Butler, applause rippled through Memorial Gymnasium.
Several Vanderbilt fans even stood, clapping and jubilantly cheering. Moats hadn’t reached a career milestone. The Commodores didn’t take the lead late in a crucial non-conference game against a ranked opponent. No, these foul shots came six minutes before halftime.
The impromptu expression was a sigh of relief from the black-and-gold clan. The Commodores had finally made a free throw after having missed their first four. Moats offered a slight reprieve on a night Vanderbilt shot a dreadful season-low 42.1 percent (eight of 19) from the foul line.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t an anomaly, just a growing headache for coach Kevin Stallings. Prior to last Thursday’s showdown against Kentucky, Vanderbilt was a lousy 57.9 percent from the line. That tied Marshall for 343rd out of 345 Division I teams. Only UC Riverside had a worse percentage (56.0).
“I hope we’re not talking after this game or the next game and saying our poor free-throw shooting cost us the game,” Stallings said last week. “That would be a real shame, because we’re certainly better free-shooters than we’ve shown at the line thus far.”
To this point, the shoddy work at the line has cost Stallings only practice time and patience.
After one recent workout, each player was required to make 100 free throws before he was allowed to leave. Junior Rod Odom reportedly made 100 of 102. When another session turned sour, Stallings ran his team through a “tense, high-stress situation.” Fourteen players combined to make 24 of 28, including seven straight.
The simulated stress?
“If you miss free throws — we are running,” said junior Kyle Fuller, who shoots a team-best 66 percent from the line. “So basically, you better make your free throws.”
Stallings even turned to outside help in hopes of curing the Commodores’ case of the yips. During Christmas break, Stallings invited Vanderbilt women’s golf coach Greg Allen and his 11-year-old son, Mason, to stop by for practice. As practice wrapped up, the coach debated putting the team through another free-throw shooting drill. Instead, he decided to let Mason take a crack at it.
“Mason was really nervous,” Greg Allen said. “He missed his first free throw, made his second one. The guys clapped for him and ... Coach was like, ‘All right give him a jersey and a scholarship. He is 50 percent. That is just as good as we are right now.’”
“[Stallings] told us he was shooting way better than us and it was true,” guard Kedren Johnson said with a laugh. “It was pretty impressive.”
Kermit Davis knows all too well about trying to rid a team of a nasty — and potentially dooming — habit.
The Middle Tennessee State coach watched in amazement last year as his team shot 49.5 percent from the field, ranking fourth in the country. When the Blue Raiders stepped to the foul line, though, they faltered. Often. They made just 63.5 percent to rank 310th.
As Stallings fears could happen to the Commodores, the woeful free-throw shooting cost MTSU at least one win — a huge one. Playing Arkansas State in the first round of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, the Blue Raiders missed five free throws in the last 71 seconds. Any one of those would have tied the game. Instead MTSU lost by three, and its NCAA Tournament hopes were dashed.
“It is a mental toughness thing if you have decent mechanics,” Davis said. “Being up there is like a pro golfer on the putting green. You can make them all on the practice green, but when you get there between the lines you got to be able to make them when the pressure is on. And tough guys do.”
Haunted by that loss, Davis estimated the Blue Raiders shot close to 20,000 free throws last offseason and players charted their misses and makes. Similar to methods used by Stallings, and most coaches, when players missed free throws during a one-and-one drill in practice, the whole team ran.
So far, the extra work has paid off.
MTSU has improved to 67 percent at the line. The Blue Raiders have witnessed change in clutch moments too. Senior Bruce Massey, who missed two crucial free throws in that Arkansas State loss last March, recently made two to push a two-point lead to a four-point advantage with 22 seconds left in a road win against South Alabama.
Still, the Blue Raiders have their moments at the line.
Davis recalls early in the season his 6-foot-7 forward Jacquez Rosier missing everything — backboard, rim, net.
“It amazes me when a guy can shoot an air ball at 15 feet,” Davis said. “You just kind of sigh. What do you do? We’ve seen Jacquez make a bunch of them. I don’t know if you laugh. He may get laughed at during the film session the next day if you win the game. But I don’t think there is much laughing going on from our team, maybe by the other team.”
The situation hasn’t turned comical yet for Stallings.
For most of his team, shooting free throws in a college game is a new experience. Vanderbilt lost its top six scorers from last year, including Brad Tinsley and Jeffery Taylor. Tinsley ranked sixth all-time at Vanderbilt with an 83.8 free-throw percentage. Taylor, now playing for the Charlotte Bobcats, was second and third, respectively, in free throws attempted and made.
Entering the season, Odom had attempted the most of anyone on the current roster — just 38. The returning players accounted for just 11.2 percent of last year’s 770 free throws.
While the misses become redundant, Vanderbilt hopes trips to the line will too. Logic suggests that what once was an unnerving moment in a sold-out, 15,000-seat arena eventually will become second nature, and shots will fall. If not, those pity cheers will be replaced by disgruntled moans.
“It is not our inability to shoot free throws or have the touch to make them,” Stallings said. “It is our inability to go to the line and calm ourselves down enough to get them in the basket. … You just have to be man enough to step up there, calm yourself down and make free throws. It is not that hard. It is not a hard shot.”