Aleighsa Welch eyed the rim and took her dribbles. The South Carolina junior knew that time was running out to start a rally against Kentucky in the SEC tournament, but with 5:38 to go and the Gamecocks trailing by eight, two makes could start one.
Welch exhaled and raised her arms. A 61.8 percent shooter, Welch wasn’t great from the line but was better than average, and close to perfect in a clutch situation. The form was there, the finger-roll was there to push the ball like a butterfly toward the basket.
The ball came off like a cinder block, clanging off the back rim and away. Welch, frowning, took the ball a second time, using the same form and the same stroke.
The ball crunched into the rim and to Kentucky’s Linnae Harper. The Wildcats scored on their next possession, restored the lead to 10 and never looked back in eliminating the Gamecocks.
That was 11 days ago.
It still stings.
“Hittin’ ’em,” Welch said, replaying the Gamecocks’ approach to free throws on the eve of the NCAA tournament. “Working on them, end of practice, throughout practice, hitting free throws. Especially me. I take a lot of responsibility for that. I think I didn’t step up, especially in the Kentucky game, and I needed to, as far as hitting free throws.”
Welch was 4-of-10 from the line against the Wildcats, with the rest of the team 6-of-8. While it snuffed the dream of sweeping both SEC championships in the same season, the loss didn’t hurt the Gamecocks – they are still a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament.
The problem it raised was a problem thought solved. In the past two seasons, the Gamecocks made the NCAA tournament despite a chronic lack of being able to make free throws. They were ranked as the next-to-worst free-throw shooting team in the country in 2012-13, and were dead last the year before.
This year, USC ranks No. 253 out of 343 with a 66.8 percentage. It’s not terrific, but it’s miles better than the 58.8 or 56.4 it posted over the past two seasons. Because their offense has been much better, and because there haven’t been that many games where free throws decided them, the percentage was deemed acceptable.
Then came the SEC tournament, where USC recorded back-to-back games of 9-of-21 and 10-of-18 from the stripe, to bring the worry hovering back above the Gamecocks’ heads.
“It’s a huge concern for us, obviously, the last two games,” coach Dawn Staley said after the Kentucky game. “But we’ve got a few weeks to figure it out and try to rectify that.”
Staley had dismissed some of the problems as shooting on a strange rim, at a strange arena. That doesn’t bode well for the NCAA tournament, because USC will be in strange arenas for the duration.
The Gamecocks, because of their double-bye, got only an hour or so of shootaround at the arena in Duluth, Ga. They’ll get to practice several times at Seattle’s Alaska Airlines Arena before their first game.
“We have to take pride in it,” Welch said. “We can’t allow for the game to come down to that again. Just work on them, hit them, do what you have to do to make sure we can knock down some free throws.”
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