Whenever Westlake sophomore point guard Lexi Cunningham steps to the free-throw line, her mind wanders.
She thinks about the postgame meal and the homework she still needs to finish. If Westlake is on the road, Cunningham focuses on the opposing crowd’s chants and taunts.
She’ll think about anything but the shot.
“My key to shooting is not thinking about making it,” Cunningham said. “It’s just shooting it and muscle memory, and letting my muscles make the shot instead of trying to let my head mess with my shot.”
Cunningham entered the week having made 69 of her 81 free-throw attempts this basketball season, and her shooting percentage of .852 ranked second among the area leaders published this week by the American-Statesman. Austin High’s Macy Lozen (31 of 36, .861) topped the chart.
Cunningham made her two free-throw attempts on Tuesday in a 63-40 victory over Lake Travis.
“Shooting free throws has definitely been a strong point for me throughout my life,” said Cunningham, a second-year letter-winner. “Last year and this year, I’ve been progressing (with) shooting those.”
Cunningham is not the only player who has found success while shooting free throws. Forty miles away in Liberty Hill, the high school boys team has developed a tradition of accuracy at the charity stripe.
Liberty Hill coach Barry Boren said the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches has crowned his team as Class 3A’s best free-throw shooting team in four of the past eight seasons. Former Panther Shane LaCaille was the classification’s best free-throw shooter during the 2012-13 season.
This season, Liberty Hill sophomore Conner Lowe has made 41 of his 46 free-throw attempts, which works out to 89.1 percent. Senior Tristan Heidelberg (56 of 64, .875) and junior Callen Mikulencak (161 of 216, .745) also have good shooting percentages.
“I would say confidence is a big factor,” Heidelberg said. “Also routine is a really big factor.”
At a practice on Wednesday, Liberty Hill played a five-on-five game that ended with the winning team having to sink its lone free-throw attempt in order to avoid running with the losing team.
Cunningham said she works on her free-throw shooting with a private coach, and she and her Westlake teammates have to make 30 foul shots at every practice.
“It’s something that our coach wants us to do, and we go over it a lot,” Mikulencak said of succeeding at the free-throw line. “It’s important to have so when we come down to hard situations, we can make them.”
Along with Liberty Hill and Westlake, most area teams have found ways to work on their free-throw shooting:
- Players on Bartlett’s boys team shoot 100 free throws apiece every Wednesday.
- Connally girls coach Candi Harvey said she has 20 to 25 free-throw competitions that she works into practices.
- Pflugerville girls coach Nancy Walling rewards her players if they convert a certain percentage during games.
- The Lanier boys team closes its practices with a game in which the Vikings get a point for each free throw made while an imaginary opponent receives two points for each miss. The Vikings must run if they lose.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the national records for free-throw percentage were set by a pair of Indiana high-schoolers during the 2000-01 season. Seth Colclasure, of Bellmont High in Decatur, made 97.7 percent of his 171 attempts while Shanna Zolman, of Wawasee High in Syracuse, made 95.4 percent of her 219 freebies.
This week, no player among the American-Statesman’s leaders bested 90 percent.
So how do players get over a missed free throw?
“I used to have a little bit of a hard time getting over missed shots,” Cunningham said. “But lately, it’s like you’ve made so many free throws, that’s just one miss. You’re going to miss, you can’t be perfect all the time.”
Free and easy points
The top free-throw shooters this basketball season, from the pros down through the college ranks:
Kevin Martin, Minnesota;.913
JJ Redick, L.A. Clippers;.910
Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas;.901
NCAA Division I men
Brenton Williams, South Carolina;.980
Travis Bader, Oakland;.934
Neil Watson, Southern Miss;.931
NCAA Division I women
Maggie Lucas, Penn St.;.972
Erin Shields, St. Joseph’s;.959
Katie Kuklok, Utah Valley St.;.944
Big 12 men
Phil Forte, Oklahoma St.;.906
Cameron Clark, Oklahoma;.825
Kyan Anderson, TCU;.817
Big 12 women
Brynn Williamson, Iowa St.;.897
Jadda Buckley, Iowa St.;.894
Liz Donohoe, Oklahoma St.;.886