Missy Gators breaking long slump at free throw line

Published 9:19 am Wednesday, February 7, 2018

During a seven-year stretch of losing seasons, one contributing factor has been a constant for the Vicksburg Missy Gators — missed free throws.

They have not hit more than 50 percent of their free throws as a team since the 2009-10 season, which is also the last time they finished with a winning record. A recent stretch of sharp shooting from the line, however, has them in position to break both of those streaks.

Vicksburg has hit 41 of its 59 free throw attempts in its last three games. The hot streak has raised its shooting percentage by 3.1 percent to an even 50 for the season, and it also has a 13-11 record with the Division 4-5A tournament approaching next week.

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The Missy Gators were 5-for-9 from the line in the fourth quarter Tuesday as they beat Yazoo County 40-35. Karmen Davenport led the team with 10 points and Sha’Kora Knight had eight.

“The last four, we’ve been shooting above 65 or 70 percent. So we’ve been doing real well the last four or five,” VHS coach Troy Stewart said. “They’ve always had the mechanics. It’s just the mentality now. They believe they’re going to step up there and make them, and they do.”

Both Stewart, now in his first season, and former coach Barbara Hartzog stressed free throw shooting in practice, but for unknown reasons it did not translate into game success.

Since finishing at 53 percent in 2009-10, the Missy Gators had hovered between 41 and 48 percent each season since. The team percentage was 46.9 percent through the first 21 games this season.

Stewart recently changed tactics to try and change that mentality. A softer approach seems to be working, he said.

“I’ve found that not putting pressure on them about free throws allows them to shoot free throws better,” Stewart said. “We work on them every single day, 20 to 30 minutes a day, but I don’t talk about it. I don’t say, ‘You shot horrible free throws!’ We’ve got to shoot better. That’s where I’m coming from. I try not to put pressure on it. In the game, when you get the pressure, you just knock them down.”

It took some time for the Missy Gators to enjoy the fruits of their newfound success at the line. They made 12 of 17 free throws against Pearl, but lost by 17 points. The following game against Germantown, they made 11 of 12 free throws in the fourth quarter — and were 23-for-27 in the game — to wipe out a 10-point deficit. A few other miscues allowed Germantown to escape with a 55-53 victory, however.

The overall numbers took a step back Tuesday, but they hit several free throws in clutch spots to pull out the win.

Stewart can tell the difference making free throws is having.

“It gives us a game we have the opportunity to fight for at the end. When you miss them you don’t even get a chance. It’s a blowout by that time,” he said.

Vicksburg and Germantown will match up again in the first round of the division tournament next Tuesday at 6 p.m. at VHS. The winner will advance to the championship game and earn a berth in the Class 5A state tournament, while the loser falls into an elimination game for third place.

Vicksburg won the first meeting, 60-53 on Jan. 23, and Stewart called it an even matchup.

“That team is built extremely close to the way we’re built,” Stewart said. “We played them this summer and it was a close game until the last three or four minutes of the game. We played them last week and won by three points. This week, we lose by two points. We’re built to play each other.”

The Division 4-5A tournament begins Monday at 6 p.m. at VHS, with Callaway and Ridgeland playing in a girls’ game, followed by Callaway vs. Germantown in a boys’ first-round game.

Vicksburg’s girls play Germantown and the boys play Ridgeland on Tuesday.

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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