Noah Riley showed up at Century High School one hour before Wednesday’s scheduled boys basketball practice so the junior guard could work a specific aspect of his game, one that separates the better teams — and players — from the rest of the pack.
Riley made sure to shoot free throws ahead of the Knights’ regular workout. Once practice began, Riley and his teammates got even more chances to stand at the line and try to convert. It’s those situations during games that many times determine the outcome.
Riley doesn’t get to the line as often as others, but when he does the result is usually points for Century. Teammate Justin Wunder, a senior guard, tops Carroll County’s official free-throw percentage leaders at 90.7, and he’s missed a mere five attempts this winter (49-for-54).
(Players have to average at least two made free-throws per game for their numbers to count toward the Times’ weekly statistics.)
“We’ve got be be pretty reliable,” said Riley, who is 21-for-25 this season at 84%. “A lot of times we drive and get in the paint, and [we’re] getting fouled. In close games we’ve got to be able to knock down those free throws.”
Basketball fans know those who thrive at the free-throw line tend to win games, and Carroll County’s boys teams take it seriously. Players have been working on free throws since they first learned how to dribble, but coming through during games, particularly late in a close contest, is a desired skill.
It’s why Denio Blaney, Chandler Gentzel and their Westminster teammates spend more than just practice time on free throws. The Owls have been known to descend into the school’s auxiliary gym during Westminster’s junior varsity game to get in some pre-varsity shots.
Blaney is second in the county at 83.3% (70-for-84); Gentzel has gone to the line 31 times with only five misses (83.9%). Around the county, Connor Stewart leads Liberty in free-throw shooting at 78.4%, and Francis Scott Key’s Ryan Rill tops his team at 71.4%.
“We always designate at least 10 minutes, 15 minutes [at practice] for free throws every day,” Blaney said. “We pride ourselves on free throws.”
Westminster got past Manchester Valley 68-60 on Monday thanks to a solid performance at the free-throw line — the Owls finished with 40 attempts and made 32, good for 80%, and they went 17-for-23 in the fourth quarter.
“Whenever it’s a close game, if all five [guys] can shoot free throws, you can foul any one of us and we’re still going to hit them,” Gentzel said. “We all have the confidence, it’s the same so it doesn’t really matter.”
Gentzel, who earlier in the season surpassed 1,000 career points, led Carroll in free-throw percentage last season at Winters Mill (110-for-134, 82.1%). South Carroll graduate Dylan Graham topped the county in 2018 at 80.1% (115-for-142), and the year before Century’s Zach Tucker hit his free throws at a county-best 84% clip (189-for-225).
Westminster alum Drue Giles put together three consecutive seasons near the top of the leaderboard before graduating in 2019. Giles, who also played at Francis Scott Key, shot close to 75% during that span (218-for-292).
It shouldn’t be a surprise that those who excel at the free-throw line usually display a competitive streak, and their coaches try not to let it to go waste.
“We’ve just got guys who care, guys who want to get better,” said Century coach George Wunder. “They’re competitors, and a big part of it is they want the ball. Making crucial foul shots and knowing you can put the ball in certain guys’ hands, like Noah and Justin, can make a difference down the stretch. And honestly, it makes a difference throughout the game. First-quarter foul shots mean just as much as those fourth-quarter foul shots.”
Wunder pointed to former players such as Tucker and Kevin Steadman, both Times Player of the Year picks, and Drew Clark for their tenacity in drawing contact, getting to the line, and knocking down important shots. Wunder praised Riley for seeking improvement on his shooting — free throws included — despite him holding one of the better percentages in Carroll.
“We’ve got more guys than just those two, but those two definitely want the ball in their hands at the end of the game,” Wunder said about Riley and his son. “They want to be fouled, and we’ll run our offense to get them the ball.”
They all seek repetition in their routine, until they feel comfortable at the line and can block out any distractions in order to make any series of free throws when their team is in need.
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“We know when the other team has six fouls, and the next one is ‘one-and-one,’” Justin Wunder said. “We’ve got to be smart with the ball ... we shoot a lot, and practice makes perfect.”