Updated Sat, Jan 4, 2014 3:01 pm
It’s the easiest shot in all of basketball, but yet it is overlooked far too often. The shot being referred to is the free throw and the Rio Grande men’s basketball team is not one that takes the shot for granted.
In fact, the RedStorm take pride in free throw shooting – so much so that they rank second out of 101 teams in Division I of the NAIA in that category, shooting an impressive 76.6 percent through 14 games this season. They have also won their last two games in the final seconds due to free throws, which marks the fourth time the RedStorm have won a game by making free throws late in the second half.
“Free throws are very important and I take it very seriously,” head coach Ken French said. “I believe we shoot more free throws in practice than any other team in the country and obviously it’s paid off in our last two games.”
French says that he uses free throw drills and games at the end of every practice to have players ready to shoot even when they are tired.
“Every team has its own strength,” he said. “Some teams rely on the 3-point shot, some are very athletic, and some rely on height for rebounds. One of our key strengths is our ability to hit free throws and we’ve done a nice job at it so far this season.”
To go along with its team ranking, Rio Grande also has two players that place in the top ten in free throw shooting. Sophomore forward Phillip Hertz’s 88.9 percent ranks ninth best in the NAIA while senior point guard Jermaine Warmack ranks seventh at 89.6 percent from the charity stripe.
Warmack has only missed seven free throws on 67 attempts this season and has also won Rio’s last two games because of last-second foul shots. On Dec. 31, the RedStorm narrowly defeated Cincinnati-Clermont 94-92 as Warmack sunk two game-winning free throws with 3.3 seconds remaining. Two nights later against the Cumberlands, the senior point guard went to the charity stripe with the game on the line once again. With the game tied at 65-65 and no time left on the clock, Warmack missed his first attempt and calmly sank his second free throw to give Rio its ninth win this season and second victory in the Mid-South Conference.
“I knew my team believed in me on those last two free throws and I believe in myself that I’m a great free throw shooter,” Warmack said. “I’m shooting around 90 percent on the year and I missed two against Cumberlands and that was a problem. I missed the first one and I just knew I was going to the make the second one.”
Warmack not only has trust from his teammates, but also from his head coach who understands just how important free throws are in the game of basketball.
“Believe it or not, it was actually one of [Warmack’s] goals going into this season to lead not only the team but also the country in free throw shooting,” French said. “We’re surprised if he misses one free throw in a game and if he misses two we’re shocked because he’s so accurate that it rarely happens for him to miss both. He’s been knocking down big free throws for us when we need him and that’s what you need from your senior point guard. These last two wins have proved how important he is for us in close games that come down to the last possession.”
Hertz serves as a nice complement to Warmack because not only does he rank ninth in free throw percentage but he also leads the team in scoring with 14.5 points a game. While Warmack and Hertz rank in the top ten, it’s important to remember that junior guard Evan Legg has only missed three free throws on 24 attempts.
“We have three players in Phillip, Evan, and Jermaine that can shoot free throws really, really well. Evan gets overlooked at times because he hasn’t had as many attempts but in practice he does not miss,” French said. “As far as our other players are concerned, they all shoot relatively well. There isn’t any Shaq-type player that you can foul and put on the line because all of our guys are solid free throw shooters.”
While the RedStorm are halfway through the 2013-14 season, they still have 15 games remaining. All 15 contests are against MSC opponents and free throws will be crucial down the stretch for Rio.
“Free throws will be huge in what I like to call our Mid-South Conference wars because it will help us seal close games,” French said. “Our guys have confidence at the line and confidence in one another to knock down foul shots.”
Although the RedStorm were picked in the preseason rankings to finish ninth overall in the MSC, they have already won two out of three conference games. With 15 still remaining, Rio Grande will need to rely on its strength and continue its success at the free throw line.