Bulldogs thriving at free throw line

The Citadel's Ashton Moore leads the Southern Conference in free throw shooting, making 84 percent of his shots. (File photo)

At 7-9 this season, The Citadel basketball team is off to its best start under fifth-year head coach Chuck Driesell, and one of the reasons is the Bulldogs’ proficiency at the free throw line.

Heading into Thursday night’s home game against Wofford, The Citadel is shooting a collective 74.8 percent at the line, which ranks No. 1 in the Southern Conference and 18th in the country.

So, what’s the secret?

“Confidence. Think about the shot and not the situation,” said Driesell. “Take each free throw one at a time, and don’t let the first shot affect you one way or the other.”

The Citadel has ranked among the top five in the league in free throw percentage five times over the last six years, leading the conference during the 2008-09 season. However, this season’s numbers are noteworthy:

Of the eight returning players from last season, seven boast a higher free-throw percentage this season, while six have registered career-best percentages thus far.

Over the last five games, The Citadel is shooting 82 percent (81-of-99) at the line.

The Bulldogs have made 80 percent of their attempts (39-of-49) in the final five minutes of games decided by 10 points or less, which includes four of The Citadel’s seven wins this year.

“That’s one of the points that coach emphasizes, being able to knock down free throws because they are easy points,” said senior guard Ashton Moore, who has made his last 22 free throws and currently leads the conference in that statistic at 84 percent. “If you add them up, that can really change the outcome of a game.”

In those aforementioned four victories (Navy, Bethune-Cookman, UNCG, Samford), the Bulldogs have drained a combined 84 percent (66-of-78) and shot 91 percent (20-of-22) in a 77-67 win over Samford last week.

Senior guard Marshall Harris attributes the success to the team’s primary ball handlers — he being one of them — understanding the importance of seizing those opportunities.

“As guards, we have to be the best free throw shooters on the team because we handle the ball so much,” said Harris. “Especially late in close games, we are the ones controlling the ball, so we are going to get fouled more and we’ve got to be ready.”

For Harris, a 77 percent career free throw shooter, cashing in at the stripe comes down to a simple physical and mental checklist.

“When I get to the line, the main thing I do is take my time,” he said. “Take a few deep breaths, make sure I’m relaxed because during a game you can get really hyped up, but when it comes to free throws, you have to be relaxed.”

While most teams set finite numbers on daily free throws made and attempted, Driesell hones in on simulating a true game experience in order to achieve desired results.

“It’s not so much a set number but emphasizing more quality attempts by trying to put them in game situations where more pressure is involved,” he said. “We’ll shoot one-and-ones, two shots and one-shot situations from different types of fouls they’ll see during the game.”

Free throws could be crucial for the Bulldogs against Wofford, the team picked to win the SoCon this year with three preseason all-conference selections and player of the year Karl Cochran.

Ashton Moore has been shooting extra foul shoots this week.

“I know it will pay dividends in the end. It could be a crucial part of the game where we need free throws,” he said. “They’re easy shots; you just have to take the time to do it.”