Playoff time is free-throw time--high school basketball coaches will attest to that.
After teams have played more than two dozen games in almost three months, their seasons will be on the line with every playoff game.
So too will the toes of many sneaker-footed, wobbly kneed players.
"Five or six games we've won this season and one or two that we've lost have been decided by free throws," said Dean Bradshaw, whose Simi Valley High team (19-5) will play a Southern Section Division I-AA first-round game tonight against visiting Chino. "But it's no stumbling now. You stumble now, your season is over."
Already, a playoff game involving a regional team has been decided at the free-throw line. On Tuesday, Saugus did not score a field goal in the fourth quarter but connected on eight of nine free throws to edge Camarillo, 41-39, in a Division I-A qualifying-round game.
"I told our guys as the playoffs were beginning, 'Look in the paper this week and see how many games will be decided on free throws,' " Saugus Coach John Clark said.
Clark pointed to Saugus' improbable rise from wild-card entry to 3-A Division champion in 1987. The Centurions won seven consecutive playoff games by an average margin of 5.7 points. During that stretch, Saugus made 69% of its free throws compared to its opponents' 52%.
"Now that it's playoff time," Clark said, "we're shooting, maybe 40 more free throws in practice."
With the importance of foul-shooting magnified by the frightening image of a season-ending clank in the clutch, coaches are arranging extra late-afternoon free-throw sessions. Efforts to improve take on different forms.
At Taft, Coach Jim Woodard routinely pits players against one another in free-throw contests with prizes ranging from soft drinks to snacks.
"We shoot 30 to 50 and make it a competition," he said. "The reason is to make them concentrate. I don't want them to get into the habit of just going through the motions of getting it done."
At Ventura, players compete each week for the grand prize of $1. The contest has evolved into something of a ritual in practice.
"As long as you make one, you stay in. As soon as you miss, you're out," Coach Dan Larson said. "It's well worth the entertainment dollar."
At Simi Valley, the best free-throw shooter each week is treated to lunch by Bradshaw. "We take it quite seriously," Bradshaw said. "Fifty every day in practice and they're recorded every week. Losers have to do finger pushups."
The combination of fun and games is time well spent, considering the free-throw shooting percentages of many of the region's best teams.
North Hollywood (21-1), ranked first in The Times' regional poll, is shooting 68.9%. Simi Valley (19-5) is shooting 67.9%, Buena (20-4) 66.7% and Ventura (20-5) 64.9%.
In addition, some of the area's best players have equally unimpressive marks. Reseda swingman Marquis Burns, who leads regional City Section players in scoring (28.3 average) and has signed to attend UCLA, is shooting only 63.1%. Hart forward Ali Peek, who has attempted as many as 20 free throws in a game, is shooting only 59.5%.
Three-point bomber Lance Fay of Buena, who leads regional Southern Section players in scoring (30.3 average), is only slightly better at 71.4%.
Other players are much more productive at the line. Simi Valley forward Danny Alexander is shooting 84.7%. and has had a string of 15 in a row as well as a few burgers on Bradshaw.
Birmingham senior guard Carlos Avelar has made 84.9%. Crescenta Valley's Josh Willis is shooting 81.1% on a team of good free-throw shooters. The Falcons, who made 17 of 17 in the fourth quarter of a Pacific League win over Glendale, are shooting 73.7%.
Taft guard Casey Sheahan, who has signed to attend Cal State Fullerton, has hit 76.1% of his free throws in Northwest Valley Conference play and has made 14 of his past 16.
For the most part, coaches seem to agree that hurling a ball through an 18-inch diameter hoop from a distance of 15 feet is a challenge to most high school players. The only thing separating them from Larry Bird and others in the NBA's 90% club is a little--well, maybe a lot--of practice.
"Shooting free throws is something a kid can get better at on his own if he just takes the time, but few of them do," Clark said. "I'm always telling my kids, 'I know you can't jump any higher and I know you can't grow six inches this week. But you can improve your shooting.' "
Hart Coach Greg Herrick, who claims he was a 90% free-throw shooter in college, said his teams always are below average in foul shooting, largely because players horse around in the gym on their free time rather than practice free throws.
"In my day, after practice, kids would practice foul-shooting," Herrick said. "Now, my players line up after practice to do their 360-degree dunks. And these are kids who will never dunk in a game in their career."
North Hollywood Coach Steve Miller said he believes that high school players simply become better free-throw shooters with age.
"I don't think there's any rhyme or reason to it," Miller said. "It's just that 70% in high school is good, 80% in college is good and 90% in the pros is good. I think every step you (improve) 10%."
Miller runs a battery of free-throw drills in practice. In one exercise, players who miss run laps. In another, players attempt to distract the shooter by screaming, waving their arms behind the baseline and even hanging from the backboard.
Finally, no player leaves the gym without making a specified number of consecutive free throws. As the season progresses, so does the number.
"Right now, we're up to seven (for each player) and, hopefully, in another week or so, if we get that far in the playoffs, we'll get up to eight in a row," Miller said. "Once you get up to seven in a row, you can be in the gym with a kid for a half-hour."
Miller recalled spending long afternoons in the gym while former North Hollywood player Ralph Topps, a 1987 graduate and "about a 20% free-throw shooter," struggled to string together seven successful free throws.
"We tried everything working with him, but he just did not have good form," Miller said. "He was terrible."
As fate would have it, Topps was fouled with five seconds to play in a playoff game against Marshall. Marshall led by one point. Topps went to the line. Miller could hardly bear to watch.
Topps swished a pair and was practically carried out of the gym by Miller and his teammates.
"The team went crazy," Miller said.
Anyone for a few extra free throws?