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Strong Free Throw Shooting Saves Kentucky in Win Over Vols

This article appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by James Pennington. KY Forward's coverage of UK Athletics is sponsored by Republic Bank.

At one point when Doron Lamb was at Kentucky, he realized one day that fatigue was playing more of a factor in his shooting than he realized. So instead of accepting the fact or perhaps aiming on improving his conditioning and hoping the problem would correct itself, he taught himself to shoot tired.

He said instead of taking a certain amount of shots before practice, he would take them after practice. His muscles felt different then—closer to how they’d feel in a game—and he worked through in his head what shooting tired felt like. Shooting, just like every repeatable motion in sports, relies on muscle memory, so Lamb essentially associated new memories with the specific situation of shooting when fatigued. He left Kentucky a 48.5-percent shooter (including 47.5 percent from deep), so he was on to something.

Lamb didn’t have anything directly to do with Kentucky’s free-throw shooting Saturday against Tennessee, but his practice method mirrored how Dakari Johnson described the Wildcats have been working up to Saturday’s 74-66 win over Tennessee.

Johnson said for about two weeks now, Kentucky has been sprinting up and down the court, stopping at the free-throw line to take five foul shots, each player repeating the exercise until he makes 50 or so.

“Basically, before you shoot the five free throws, you have to sprint up and down and get your heart rate up to 80 (percent) before you get to the line,” he said. “So you’re tired, and while you’re tired, you’re shooting free throws. That’s something new. Since recent—about like two weeks ago. We have to shoot them until we get up to at least 25 or 50 (makes), depending on the day. You’ve gotta make your free throws to finish earlier.”

The Wildcats made 23 of their 24 free-throw attempts Saturday, the only miss coming with 32 seconds left in the game (it was Aaron Harrison). Andrew Harrison was 10-of-10, Aaron Harrison was 6-of-7, Julius Randle was 5-of-5, and Alex Poythress was 2-for-2.

The Volunteers wore down Kentucky, too. That was their goal, coach Cuonzo Martin said: Not to wear them down by running a bunch, but to horse around in the paint and pound the ball inside, depleting energy with force instead of finesse.

Kentucky needed something, too, the way it was beaten on the glass. That feels like a strange string of words to type together—the way Kentucky was beaten on the glass—but it’s true: Tennessee dominated the boards, out-rebounding the Wildcats 39-24 and limiting Kentucky to seven offensive rebounds, tying its season low (it also had seven offensive boards in a win against Providence).

Entering play Saturday, Kentucky’s 67.2 free-throw percentage was 252nd out of 351 Division I teams. On the other hand, Kentucky led Division I with a 44.5 offensive rebounding percentage—percent of offensive rebounds grabbed on missed shots—and both statistics were flipped on their head Saturday. Kentucky grabbed 25 percent of its offensive rebound chances Saturday. If that were its season average, Kentucky would tie with Lehigh for 329th in Division I. And it goes without saying—though we’ll say it here for the sake of clarity—that the Wildcats’ 95.8 free-throw percentage Saturday would lead Division I by a lot if they shot that every game (Providence leads the country with an 80.1 free-throw percentage).

So as little as Kentucky’s eight-point win over Tennessee had to do with its muscle memory from the rest of the season to date, Kentucky’s new muscle memory from the foul line may have saved it from a second SEC loss in a row.

Photo: Aaron Harrison missed Kentucky’s only free throw Saturday, the Wildcats finishing 23-of-24 from the line in a 74-66 win over Tennessee. (Photo by James Pennington)

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