- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 27, 2002

The enduring memories of Maryland's games at the NCAA East regional will likely be clutch 3-pointers by Juan Dixon and Steve Blake; Lonny Baxter bulling his way to the basket against Connecticut; Byron Mouton harassing Kentucky's Tayshaun Prince into a difficult shooting night.

Easily overlooked might be Baxter's 15-for-18 effort at the free throw line against the Huskies or Chris Wilcox's 7-for-8 showing against Kentucky or that the Terps shot better than 88 percent at the line for the two games.

In March, when winning and hitting free throws really counts, the Terps' free-throw shooting has produced valuable points nearly every time a player steps to the stripe, leaving the team confident as it prepares for Saturday's Final Four matchup with Kansas.

Maryland's free-throw shooters have become extremely reliable instead of a liability as they were early in the season. As a team, the Terps knocked down 21 of 24 attempts against Kentucky and 31 of 35 against UConn, dispelling any doubt about their ability to make shots in the cavernous Carrier Dome.

Combine that with just six misses combined against Siena and Wisconsin in the first two rounds, and the Terps are shooting a blistering 85.7 percent (78-for-91) in four tournament games. In the history of the NCAA tournament, just one team that played in at least three tournament games St. John's, 1969, at 87.0 percent has shot a better percentage from the free-throw line.

"A lot of times, free-throw shooting comes down to concentration. In big games like that, we know that every free throw is going to count," said Tahj Holden, who has made 31 of his last 33 attempts. "We've been shooting really well the last month you need that to be a championship team. One of the components of being a championship team is making free throws especially clutch free throws and clutch shots."

The Terps' free-throw accuracy has created a stark contrast, though a welcome one, from early season returns, which created some concern among fans. In the season opener against Arizona, the Terps missed eight of 12 attempts; against Delaware State 15 of 31; and against Illinois 12 of 24. The players said the difference has been focus and practice.

Baxter and Wilcox have made the most strides. Through his first seven games, Wilcox made just 11 of his 34 attempts, and on Dec.30, Wilcox was a 44 percent free-throw shooter and Baxter 56.6. Since then, both have shot at almost exactly the same rate, just shy of 67 percent, and Wilcox attributed their improvement to free-throw competitions between he and Baxter before practices.

"It's made me and Lonny better free-throw shooters. That's what we need this time of year, because if you don't make free throws, you go home," said Wilcox, who added that earlier this season the problem was in his head, something he rectified. "I was thinking, 'Oh, I can't make this shot. I'm not going to be able to hit it.' But I just worked on it a lot, and now I'm feeling more comfortable when I go to the line. My teammates are more confident in me making the shot."

At the end of tight games, coach Gary Williams always makes sure he has good free-throw shooters on the floor, something Wilcox said motivated him to get better. In practice, Williams lets better free-throw shooters like Dixon and Mouton shoot on their own he doesn't want to disrupt the routines those players have developed. But Williams wanted Baxter to take his time and ensure that he went to the line each time with the same mentality. It has worked in seven games this month he's shooting 80 percent.

"To me, Lonny's always had a good stroke," Williams said. "The big thing is his focus every time he gets to the free-throw line, he's got to think the same thoughts. I think he's doing it now."

Typically, Williams has players shoot free throws for about a half an hour. Last Tuesday, Williams mistakenly left free throws out of the practice, and players said he was upset with himself for the omission.

"A lot of it's mental," Williams said. "When you make some, it's contagious, just like when you miss some. Fortunately, we're on a roll right now."

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