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Free throws falling at impressive rate for local standouts

The one shot that translates from high school (or, for that matter, middle school) all the way to the highest levels of the game of basketball is the free throw. It’s an unguarded 15-footer on a regulation 10-foot rim, whether you’re playing at the Vina High School gym or Madison Square Garden.

Shooting free throws is like putting; proper technique is important, sure, but it’s more a mental exercise than anything else. Confidence is crucial, and the best foul shooters—and putters—are the ones who have refined their craft to the point where they can rely on muscle memory to triumph over nerves in even the most stressful circumstances.

Foul shooting in high school basketball is largely hit or miss (pun intended). Most coaches would be thrilled to have their teams shoot somewhere in the 70-percent range, but it seems that fewer and fewer are actually hitting that mark. Nothing stings quite like going 12-for-24 from the line in a three-point loss.

Two local players in particular are performing exceptionally at the foul line so far this season. On the girls’ side, Vina senior point guard Abby Hester had made 85 percent of her free throws through Sunday for the 8-2 Lady Red Devils. Hester’s proficiency from the line is especially valuable because of how often she gets there; she had already attempted 105 free throws (making 89 of them) in Vina’s first 10 games, putting her on a pace to easily surpass her career-high of 247 attempts last season [she shot 75 percent].

Almost all big-time scorers get to the foul line a ton, and the 5’2 Hester certainly fits the bill; she was averaging 19.4 points per game through Sunday (up just a tick from 18.0 last year), and she’s topped the 20-point mark in a game 19 times since the start of last season.

Hester had an off game—for her—at the line on Saturday in Bear Creek, misfiring on four of her 12 attempts. That’s three more free throws than Russellville’s Lucas McNutt had missed all season through Sunday. McNutt, a 6’1 junior guard, hit his first two free throws of the game in the season opener at Colbert County two weeks ago before coming up empty on the front end of a two-shot situation in the third quarter. As of Sunday, he hadn’t missed since.

McNutt made his final nine attempts in Leighton that night and then went 8-for-8 at Hamilton a week later and 7-for-7 in a loss at Haleyville last Thursday. He did not attempt a free throw at Winfield the following night, leaving him at 26-for-27 (96 percent) on the year with 24 consecutive makes [impressive, to be sure, but a far cry from the AHSAA record of 58 in a row by Victor Newman of Houston Academy over a seven-game stretch in the 1987-88 season].

Like Hester, McNutt was a very good foul shooter last season as well, when he shot 75 percent from the line and was called upon by head coach Patrick Odom to shoot a pair of technical-foul free throws in the final seconds of a tie game in the area finals against East Limestone. [He made both, giving the Golden Tigers an 83-81 win.] Through Sunday, McNutt had nearly doubled his scoring average from 8.2 points per game last season to 15.8 per game this season.

The Golden Tigers dropped three of their first four games, but foul shooting was not to blame; they are 77-for-98 (79 percent) heading into Tuesday’s area opener at Brooks. McNutt is not their only marksman, with senior guard Houston Kitterman shooting 7-for-7 through Sunday and freshman guard Chandler Dyas going 7-for-8.

Vina’s girls probably wouldn’t have been 8-2 through Sunday without Hester’s foul-line heroics; she went 16-for-17 in a game against Winston County on November 17, scoring 26 points and helping the Lady Red Devils rally from a fourth-quarter deficit to win 60-50. The next day she shot 15-for-18 from the line and scored a season-high 29 points in a 68-46 rout of Fayette County.

There are, of course, other excellent foul shooters in Franklin County, starting with Belgreen’s inside-outside combo of 6’5 junior post player Mason Bragwell and 5’9 junior guard Brant Bragwell. After some uncharacteristic misses in the Bulldogs’ first two games of the year, the duo combined to go 14-for-16 from the line last Friday against visiting Sheffield. Belgreen shot 24-for-31 as a team in the 73-56 win, running its record to 3-0. [Mason Bragwell was averaging 20.0 points per game through Sunday, with Brant on his heels at 18.3 per game.]

Belgreen’s girls, meanwhile, scuffled from the line in their first two games before going 16-for-19 last Friday in a 64-28 rout of Sheffield. Guards Jasmine Martin and Gabbie Moore led the way, combining to shoot 7-for-7, and freshman post player Emma Dempsey went 6-for-8.

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