We're talkin' bout free throws.
First, let's check in with Skylar Diggins-Smith and her really great, fantastically valid question.
Do coaches/players still work on free throws in practice?
— Skylar Diggins-Smith (@SkyDigg4) December 19, 2021
Diggins-Smith (née Diggins) was a career 77.8% shooter over four seasons at Notre Dame and never dipped below 73% overall. She's even better at the pro level, shooting 84.8% over eight seasons and falling below 80% only once. She knows what she's critiquing.
Free throws have proven to be an issue, and it's been glaring in big games. Certainly, many teams have iced wins on free throws, like Louisville hitting all eight in the final 41 seconds against UConn. But others have unnecessarily elongated games or put themselves in a tight contest that didn't need to be that way with early misses. And some of the nation's best teams aren't taking advantage of an aspect of the game that literally has the word "free" in it.
Take Tennessee's 74-63 loss to Stanford. Those 11 points can be made up in free throws alone. The Lady Vols shot 16-for-29 (55.2%) from the line and it wasn't an off day. They're 58.9% overall this season, a mark that ranks 339th out of 348 teams.
No. 1 South Carolina (64.7%, 282), No. 12 Texas (63.9%, 297), No. 21 LSU (63.8%, 300), Colorado (63.5%, 305), No. 22 Kentucky (63.4%, 308), Virginia Tech (62.1%, 315) and No. 2 Stanford (61.7%, 322) are all in the bottom 20% of the nation in the category. They're surviving the issue, sure, but when does it begin to rear its ugly head?
Now on to ESPN analyst Debbie Antonelli with stats from both the women's and men's games:
Free throws?? It's not good in college hoops. As I reported on ESPN2
27 of the 65 power 5 teams shooting less than 70% on women's side
26 of 65 teams on the men's side less than 70%
That's a rounded off 42% shooting less that 70%
NOT GOOD! Players need practice NOW! Get in gym!
— Debbie Antonelli (@debbieantonelli) December 20, 2021
Made free throws are a result of repetition and mental fortitude. Get the mechanics down, shut down the noise and shoot. Swish. Easy points. That's why good coaches at youth levels end practices with their team shooting free throws. They're tired and drained, same as late in a game. The repetition goes from there and should stay a focus.
Michigan State's Nia Clouden drops 50
The Michigan State athletic communications department has been telling media members to keep an eye on senior guard Nia Clouden since the preseason.
Call it foreshadowing. Because on Monday, Clouden dropped 50 against Florida Gulf Coast in a two-overtime game and the first contest of the West Palm Beach Invitational.
She set a program record and the mark for highest-scoring individual performance in the nation this season. It broke the previous record of 42 points by All-American Tori Jankoska (vs. Ohio State in 2017). It also ties the men's program record for highest-scoring game set by Terry Furlow against Iowa in 1976.
Spartans, give it up for @niaclouden for:
1. Breaking a school record
2. Being third overall player in the B1G to score 50 points
3. Scoring the most points in the NCAA this season so far
Amazing work Nia!!! 🏝🔥☀️🙌 #SpartansWill #WCP #GoGreen pic.twitter.com/h03KakmoNE
— Michigan State Women's Basketball (@MSU_WBasketball) December 20, 2021
Despite the output, Michigan State (7-5) lost, 85-84, to the formerly ranked squad. FGCU (10-1) guard Kierstan Bell scored on an fastbreak with 43 seconds left for the deciding points.
Clouden's previous high was 34 against Michigan in February. She is the third Big Ten player to reach 50, joining Michigan's Naz Hillmon (50 vs. Ohio State, also in a loss) and former Minnesota star Rachel Banham, an unrestricted free agent who played with the Minnesota Lynx. Banham had totals of 52 and 60 for the Gophers.
Clouden shot 17 of 28 and hit 15 of 17 free throws (fantastic) in 46 minutes. She added six rebounds, all on defense, and played with four fouls late. The team's eight points in the second overtime were all hers.
The 5-foot-8 guard is on multiple watch lists and came into the game averaging 19.2 points and 5.1 assists per game, both of which rank fourth in the stacked Big Ten. More than half of her 12 games have seen outputs of at least 20 points. And to really bring this full circle, she made 64 of 70 free throws. It's the second-most made free throws in the nation and that 91.4% completion mark ranks 15th of all players nationwide.
UConn streaks snapped
Connecticut fell out of the AP Top 10 for the first time in 16 seasons following a 69-64 loss to Louisville on Sunday. The Huskies spent a record 313 straight weeks as one of the nation's 10 best teams dating back to March 7, 2005. Both then and now they are ranked No. 11, a fall of four spots from last week's poll.
The second-longest streak belongs to Tennessee at 212 weeks. Baylor, which dropped five spots to No. 10 after its loss, has the longest active streak at 136 weeks.
UConn has still been ranked for 533 consecutive weeks, ranking second behind Tennessee's record of 565. They'll head into the Christmas break on watch again for back-to-back losses, which hasn't happened since 1993. The Huskies (6-3, 1-0 Big East) host Marquette (8-3, 2-1 Big East) on Dec. 29.
The last time they lost three regular season games before New Year's was in 2004. The last time the school lost more than three games in a season was a 35-4 record in 2012-13 and they won their eighth national championship.
It's not all doom and gloom. Freshman Caroline Ducharme had 24 points and eight rebounds against Louisville. Graduate transfer Dorka Juhász (Ohio State) added 15 and eight, respectively. And the Huskies dominated the paint, 38-12. But once again, fourth quarter production was a problem. Ducharme scored scoring 15 of the team's 19 points in the frame and was the only UConn scorer until 47 seconds remained.
AP 'upset' watch: 2 OT thrillers
There were two upsets of AP Top 25 ranked teams and they shared two traits: each team was top five and each game went to overtime. Given those aspects, we're going to break each down a little more this week. (Rankings are as of game time.)
No. 17 Georgia 82, No. 2 N.C. State 80 (OT) — N.C. State down three in Monday's AP poll; Georgia up four
With a wall of gray in front of her, Georgia's Sarah Ashlee Barker threw one up from the middle of the Kay Yow Court logo and sent an incredible game into OT.
Jillian Hollingshead (nine points on 4-for-4 shooting, four rebounds), Jenna Staiti (21 points, 11 rebounds, six blocks) and Que Morrison (20 points, six rebounds, six assists, five steals) scored in the extra five minutes to notch the signature win.
— Georgia Basketball 🏀🐶 (@UGA_WBB) December 17, 2021
The absence of Elissa Cunane on N.C. State was clear and her 11 points in the 25-point third quarter turned a 12-point deficit into a one-point lead for the Wolfpack. Cunane got into early foul trouble and played 29 minutes with 20 points (shooting 8-for-14), five rebounds, one assist and one block.
No. 13 Michigan 74, No. 5 Baylor 68 (OT) — Baylor down five; Michigan up four
It should not be a surprise that Baylor was eventually upset. So far, the Bears rode to the top on talented players, previous seasons of success and other top-10 teams losing in tougher schedules. The Bears (9-2) have largely played a cupcake one.
But what was surprising in Sunday's win was how Michigan (11-1) won the final seconds and overtime without All-American and potential WNBA lottery pick Naz Hillmon. This is the team that needed overtime to avoid an opening-night upset to IUPUI and survived by looking to the senior forward for 30 of its 67 points. But against a strong Baylor team that bounced them in last year's Sweet 16, Hillmon safely played with four fouls for most of the final 12 minutes. When she fouled out with 22 seconds in a tie game, it felt in real time as if that was the end of the Wolverines, whether it came in regulation or overtime.
Instead, without their go-to option in Hillmon (15 points, 10 rebounds, two steals), four different Wolverines scored and five brought down rebounds in overtime. Maddie Nolan (5p, 4r) and Leigha Brown (25p, 5r, 4a, 2s) closed out the school's first win over a top-five team in history. They were 0-for-33 going into the contest.
The way they won makes them a strong March contender.
Game to watch
There are a few games early in the week ahead of a break for players to enjoy the holidays. Concerns around COVID-19 have already halted a few programs this season. It will be interesting to see what the impact will be through the break as the number of cases, many of them omicron, increase across the country.
No. 2 Stanford (8-2) at No. 1 South Carolina (11-0), Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2 — It's Christmas come early for college hoops fans and the second No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup of the young season. The two last met when reigning champion Stanford edged South Carolina, 66-65, in the Final Four. The Gamecocks missed two great last-second attempts that ended their season short of a title.
Their most recent meeting before that, South Carolina defeated Stanford in the 2017 Final Four en route to their championship.
Stanford's resume so far includes a 3-2 record against AP Top 25 teams. The Cardinal defeated Indiana, Maryland and Tennessee with losses against Texas and South Florida. The Cardinal have 10 days off before facing Washington in the Pac-12 opener on Dec. 31.
South Carolina also faced five ranked opponents and took down every last one: N.C. State, Oregon, Connecticut, Maryland and Duke. The Gamecocks' defense is smothering and their 8.8 blocks per game (Aliyah Boston averages 3.09 of those) leads the nation. Head coach Dawn Staley said Monday guard Destanni Henderson will play after missing time with a leg injury.
They also return after Christmas to start SEC play against Missouri on Dec. 30.