Dangerous from the line
While most of the country is focused on the NCAA men's and women's division I tournaments, Nevada holds a nationally recognized collegiate basketball player of its own.
Cottey College witnessed something tantalizingly close to perfection last season, every time sophomore Melissa Hedges stepped to the free throw line.
Hedges made 107 of her 120 free throw attempts, good for a blistering 89 percent from the line last season. Her free throw percentage was third nationally among NJCAA Division II, basketball behind Katilin Lang and Jessica See; but her 120 attempts were more than Lang and See's combined.
Hedges said she has always known she is a proficient jump shooter but only really got hot in her senior year at Cottey when head coach Dave Ketterman realized her free throw ability and made it a priority to get her to the line.
"My free throws got better this
year because Coach put me in a
position where he was making me
attack the basket," Hedges said.
"So, almost every time I would
get fouled and I would almost always
go to the free throw line. I think
that's how I improved most this year. This year
was my best year ever with free throws."
Ketterman said he identified Hedges as a quality shooter as a recruit at Glendale High School in
Springfield, Mo., where she played under Tina Robbins, now the coach at Crowder College. He
said he brought Hedges in to watch her shoot and knew he had an ace jump shooter on his hands.
"She had Glendale's 3-point shooting mark, 40 percentile from 3 her junior year," Ketterman said. "We brought her in for a visit and I put her through our shooting drills and she's got a text book form shot. She sets up the same way every time, has the same release point and I could tell that she was very comfortable shooting the ball at Glendale."
Hedges was already standing out to coaches in middle school. Robbins watched her play before she got to Glendale High and saw her as a natural scoring talent. She said Hedges' set up and her mental toughness sets her apart from her peers.
"I think that she's done a great job of not only getting the repetition but, you know, mentally she's focused on what she's doing," Robbins said. "I think she's a kid who worked hard at what she did. She put the extra time in to make herself the player that she is today."
Hedges credits her unbelievable season to an unchanging routine every time she steps to the charity stripe. Before every free throw she dribbles the ball three times, spins it and releases. She said muscle memory takes over when you shoot as many free throws in practice as she has.
Ketterman emphasizes practicing free throws more than most college coaches has his team shoot anywhere from 50 to 100 free throws a day in practice. Even Hedges admitted was more than she expected. The idea is to promote muscle memory and make foul shots as automatic as possible.
Ironically, Hedges has been repeating an old habit at the free throw line that almost no coaches will teach young players.
"I jump during my free throws, which a lot of people don't do and they teach you not to do but I've done it ever since I was little," Hedges said. "I had people, like my coaches comment on it and stuff but they never really told me to not jump so it's just something I've always done."
Robbins said she didn't try to change anything about Hedges' free throw form in high school and Ketterman has left well enough alone in college. The pay-off has been arguably the best division II free throw shooter in America and the second-leading scorer on Cottey's roster.
"If I knew how to bottle it up I'd sell it and write a book on it with Melissa," Ketterman said. "It's something she very naturally does. A lot of it has to do with being able to relax and execute in game situations, and she does that."
Hedges was so good from the charity stripe last season that she actually said free throws were easier for her than layups. She was at a loss to remember a performance at the line that was more impressive than her percentage last season.
"During one game, I can't remember which one it was, I went 18 for 18 from the line, so that was pretty awesome," Hedges said. "There was a game that was pretty close at the very end of the game and then they fouled me and I got to shoot a couple free throws to put it away. But yeah, I was like 107 for 120 so you can't get much better than that."