Whether a basketball coach is deep in analysis or independent of statistics, he will know who of his players can shoot free throws – and who cannot. This is the most basic of all basketball statistics, which may explain its status as a public obsession.
Joe Golding knew what the numbers were saying. His power forward, Joe Pleasant, was fouled 1.2 seconds from the end and Abilene Christian was behind Texas by one point in their first round game of the NCAA tournament. Pleasant owed two free throws. One, if converted, would tie the game. Two would provide an almost insurmountable lead. He was painfully close to a 50/50 proposition to miss all of them.
“I thought they were going. I had no doubt they were going,” Golding told Sporting News early on Sunday. “The kid works hard. He deserves good things. He’s a good free throw shooter. He really is. He hasn’t shot the free throws well this year, but he works at it all the time. I knew they were going.
“Good things happen to good people. It was part of the story. The story was written. Joe was going to make those free throws. I had no doubts.”
Golding was right, of course. Pleasant’s two free throws settled smoothly into the back of the net, and through, and Abilene Christian, the No.14 seed in the Eastern Region, took a 53-52 header victory. of Series No.3 Texas, who seven days earlier had won the Big 12 Tournament Title.
“My coach, he said I was going to do two free throws, we would have a save at the end,” Golding told reporters in a Zoom call after the game. “You work on free throws all the time. It’s no different, me shooting those or just me in the gym on my own. I just had to visualize them when I came in. And that was the. result.”
What could have been even more remarkable than Abilene’s victory, and that says a lot, is that the Wildcats didn’t play exceptionally well, at least on offense. They shot 29.9 percent from the field. They were 3 out of 18 out of 3 points. No player has scored more than 11 points. The Wildcats scored just 10 points in the final eight minutes of the game.
How did it happen? On the one hand, Abilene had her hand on the ball more often. The Wildcats forced 23 turnovers. They passed the Longhorns 36-31. That’s right: Texas took 6-11 Kai Jones, 6-10 Jericho Sims, 6-9 Greg Brown and 6-9 Royce Hamm in a game against the Southland Conference champion and got their cocks kicked on the planks. The Wildcats didn’t hit a lot of their shots, but they tried 27 more than UT.
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“We showed a great heart tonight. A ton of adversity, all night long,” Golding said. “Couldn’t get the ball into the basket. Couldn’t find a way to score. But I just kept keeping it and found a way to get on the offensive glass. I think 18 offensive rebounds against five . When you’re not making moves and you can’t do anything, you have to find another way to win. “
Pleasant, who finished with 11 points and eight rebounds, is a 6-8 junior from Overland Park, Kan. His father, Anthony, was an NFL defensive end for 14 seasons and won two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots. Joe is built a bit like a professional soccer player, and he also shoots free throws like one. Well, most of the time.
Free throw percentage is a tricky statistic in basketball, generally overestimated and often temperamental. The difference between the best Division I basketball foul-shooting team and the 200th is, on average, 2.4 points per game. Is it a lot? It is no small amount, but it is not more than a single missed block, a failed defensive mission, an unnecessary rollover.
And it tends to be less reliable than many realize.
Case in point: As Connecticut struggled to recover from a five-point deficit against Maryland with 2:53 to go on Saturday, star goaltender James Bouknight went to the line for a one-on-one. He missed. With the deficit up to seven points and 2:29 left, he returned to the line for another front end. And missed again. While the game was still collectable in the last minute, the Terps are now up eight, Bouknight got another free throw opportunity and went 1 for 2. In a possible 63-54 loss, he was 2 of 6. .
And then there’s Pleasant. He had missed 35 of his 85 free throws in the 2020-21 regular season, leaving him with a .588 save percentage. Of the eight active players averaging double-digit minutes for the Wildcats, he’s the fiercest of the shooters. It didn’t matter. These shots went into the basket.
“I would say it was more of a mental thing. I feel like I’m starting to pull myself together just visualizing the free throws coming in,” Pleasant told SN. “I really try to focus on my breathing, calm myself down, realize that I’m working so hard on it that it’s no different for me at the gym compared to games.”
Abilene Christian has been a Division I program since 2013-14. It’s a 5,300 college student with a pre-NCAA tournament appearance, earned as the Southland Champion in 2019. The Wildcats faced larger Wildcats two years ago, the group representing Kentucky, and Pleasant. said the appearance was decidedly different.
“I felt like two years ago we were pretty happy to be there. It was a first experience,” Pleasant said. “This team, we are ready to take on another challenge: not just to be here, but to compete and try to win here.”
Abilene became the second No.14 seed in as many days to win an NCAA first round game and the fifth team placed 12th or worse to advance in that tournament. What was remarkable: The Wildcats didn’t need a miracle to do it. Unless you count those free throws. Which you probably should.