Whether a basketball coach is deeply into analytics or a statistic agnostic, he is going to know who among his players can shoot free throws — and who can’t. It is the most basic of all basketball stats, which may account for its standing as public obsession.
Joe Golding knew what the numbers said. His power forward, Joe Pleasant, had been fouled with 1.2 seconds remaining and Abilene Christian trailing Texas by a point in their first-round NCAA Tournament game. Pleasant was due two free throws. One, if converted, would tie the game. Two would provide an almost insurmountable lead. He was painfully close to a 50/50 proposition to miss each one.
“I thought they were going in. I had zero doubts that they were going in,” Golding told Sporting News early Sunday. “The kid works hard. He deserves good things. He’s a good free throw shooter. He really is. He hasn’t shot the free throws well this year, but he works at them all the time. And I knew they were going in.
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“Good things happen to good people. It was part of the story. The story was written. Joe was going to make those free throws. I had no doubt.”
Golding was right, of course. Pleasant’s two free throws settled gently into the bottom of the net, and through, and Abilene Christian, the No. 14 seed in the East Region, earned a 53-52 victory over No. 3 seed Texas, which seven days earlier had claimed the Big 12 Tournament title.
“My coach, he said I was going to make two free throws, we would get a stop at the end,” Golding told reporters in a Zoom call after the game. “You work on free throws all the time. It’s no different, me shooting those or just me in the gym by myself. I just had to visualize them going in. And that was the result.”
What might have been even more remarkable than Abilene winning, and that’s saying something, is the Wildcats did not play exceptionally well, at least on offense. They shot 29.9 percent from the field. They were 3 of 18 on 3-pointers. No player scored more than 11 points. The Wildcats scored only 10 points in the final eight minutes of the game.
How did this happen? For one, Abilene had its hands on the ball more often. The Wildcats forced 23 turnovers. They outrebounded the Longhorns 36-31. That’s right: Texas took 6-11 Kai Jones, 6-10 Jericho Sims, 6-9 Greg Brown and 6-9 Royce Hamm into a game against the Southland Conference champion and got its tail kicked on the boards. The Wildcats didn’t make many of their shots, but they attempted 27 more than UT.
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“We showed tremendous heart tonight. A ton of adversity, all night long,” Golding said. “Couldn’t get the ball to go in the basket. Couldn’t find a way to score. But just continued to guard it, and found a way to get on the offensive glass. I think 18 offensive rebounds to their five. When you’re not making shots and can’t get anything to go, you’ve got find a different way to win.”
Pleasant, who finished with 11 points and eight rebounds, is a 6-8 junior from Overland Park, Kan. His father, Anthony, was an NFL defensive end for 14 seasons and won two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots. Joe is built a little like a pro football player, and he shoots free throws like one, as well. Well, most of the time.
Free throw percentage is a tricky stat in basketball, overvalued generally and often capricious. The difference between the best foul shooting team in Division I basketball and the 200th is, on average, 2.4 points per game. Is that a lot? It’s not a little, but it’s no more consequential than a single missed blockout, a blown defensive assignment, an unnecessary turnover.
And it tends to be less reliable than many believe.
Case in point: When Connecticut was fighting to recover from a five-point deficit against Maryland with 2:53 remaining on Saturday, star guard James Bouknight went to the line for a one-and-one. He missed. With the deficit up to seven points and 2:29 left, he went back to the line for another front end. And missed again. With the game still retrievable inside the final minute, the Terps now up by eight, Bouknight earned another free throw opportunity and went 1 for 2. In an eventual 63-54 loss, he was 2 of 6.
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And then there is Pleasant. He had missed 35 of his 85 free throws during the 2020-21 regular season, leaving him with a .588 percentage. Of the eight active players averaging double-figure minutes for the Wildcats, he is the foulest of shooters. It did not matter. Those shots were going in the basket.
“I’d say it was more of a mental thing. I feel like I’m starting to get back to myself just visualizing the free throws going in,” Pleasant told SN. “I’m just really trying to focus on my breathing, calm myself down, realizing I work on it so much that it’s no different for me in the gym vs. in games.”
Abilene Christian has been a Division I program since 2013-14. It is a university of 5,300 students with one prior NCAA Tournament appearance, earned as Southland champion in 2019. The Wildcats faced some more prominent Wildcats two years ago, the group representing Kentucky, and Pleasant said that appearance was decidedly different.
“I felt like two years ago, we were kind of just happy to be there. It was a first-time experience,” Pleasant said. “This team, we’re ready to take on another challenge: not just to be here, but to compete and try to get some wins down here.”
Abilene became the second No. 14 seed in as many days to win a first-round NCAA game and the fifth team seeded 12th or worse to advance in this tournament. What was remarkable: The Wildcats didn’t need a miracle to do it. Unless you count those free throws. Which you probably should.