With 1:19 left in overtime in Montana’s 77-74 loss to Portland State on Saturday, Jamar Akoh was fouled and stepped to the free throw line.
Two makes from the big man would have tied the game at 73, but Akoh missed the first before making the second.
The Griz wouldn’t get a better chance to tie the game and were forced to shoot desperation 3-pointers on their last two possessions as the Vikings snapped their 20-game home winning streak.
The charity stripe has been uncharitable all season long for Montana, which is shooting just 66.8 percent from the line in 15 games, ninth in the 11-team Big Sky Conference.
It’s one of the few statistical categories in which Montana isn’t at or near the top of the league, and free throw shooting has cost the Grizzlies games.
In their first loss of the season, against Georgia Southern in the Bahamas, Montana made just 10-of-15 free throws (66.7 percent) while the Eagles went 19-of-23 (82.6 percent) in a three-point win.
In Saturday’s game, Portland State, led by a 13-of-15 performance from Holland Woods, shot 77.8 percent from the free-throw line, while Montana was at 69.7. A few more makes in regulation, and Woods wouldn’t even have had the chance to send the game into OT with his tying 3-pointer late.
Just three Grizzlies — Kendal Manuel, Timmy Falls and Ahmaad Rorie — are shooting above 70 percent from the line, and the team as a whole has broken 75 percent just once in 15 games, when they made 9-of-10 in a loss at Arizona.
It’s a small but important blemish on the resume of a team that’s otherwise the most statistically dominant in the Big Sky Conference.
“I would just say it’s a mental thing,” Michael Oguine said. “You’ve got to focus at the line, make shots. We practice enough, you just have to calm down. Maybe some guys are nervous. I know for myself sometimes, I get a little nervy up there, worry about missing, but I’ve just got to focus and step up to the line and make some free throws.”
Oguine has had a lot of practice. Among the top 15 scorers in the conference, only Northern Colorado’s Jordan Davis and Weber State’s Jerrick Harding have shot more free throws than Oguine’s 86.
That production is due to Oguine’s aggressiveness — “I go to the basket strong. I feel like refs see that, I go to the paint, I don’t shy away from contact. I seek contact out,” he said — and it means that his numbers could take a big bump up with some added efficiency at the line.
He’s shooting 68.6 percent on free throws so far, above Montana’s team average but with a lot of room for improvement.
Davis and Harding, for example, are both shooting better than 80 percent from the line. It’s a big reason why they’re first and second in the conference in scoring.
“Obviously you want to be as close to perfect as you can,” Oguine said. “In the 80s is really a target, that’s where the great free throw shooters shoot, anywhere from the 80s to 90 percent. That’s obviously the goal. Just got to keep working on it, step up, be confident and knock them down.”
Akoh agreed with his teammate that most of what goes on at the line is mental. Montana’s senior center has had some physical issues as well.
He admitted that he’s still not fully recovered from the right wrist injury that’s caused him to miss nearly half of Montana’s 15 games. The injury is to wrist of Akoh’s shooting hand, obviously affecting his free-throw shooting.
He’s shooting even more free throws on a per-game basis than Oguine, but, after making 66.7 percent last year, is down at 58.5 in 2018.
“It’s kind of just hit or miss when I step up there right now, but I am working on it and trying to strengthen my wrist up,” Akoh said. “I’m starting to get some reps in, so hopefully I can improve.”
Partially because of that, head coach Travis DeCuire didn’t seem too worried about his team’s struggles so far.
“If you take away the guys that have shot fewer than one free throw per game, and take out Jamar, who’s basically played with a torn ligament, torn tendon, in his shooting wrist, what would our free-throw percentage be? 71 [percent],” DeCuire said. “We’d be in the top 25 percentile in the country.”
He’s right about the percentage — Oguine, Rorie, Kendal Manuel and Sayeed Pridgett, the only Grizzlies (other than Akoh) to shoot more than one free throw a game, are shooting a combined 71.6 percent.
That would be top-third in the country, not top quarter, but the point remains, and it should encourage those who think Montana will figure out its issues at the line.
It’s proven a tough puzzle to crack so far, and whether or not they do might decide some more close games, and maybe even the season.
“It’s a unique shot,” Oguine said. “In the game, there’s always someone guarding you. You get to the line, there’s no one guarding you. You think that it makes it a lot easier, but it’s a different skill, more different muscle memory you have to bring into play. It’s just about repetition in practice, we have to get in, get our reps up and be confident and knock it down.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.