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Published: Wednesday, 2/6/2013

Smith, Buckley have Toledo Rockets on record-setting pace of free throw shooting

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Matt Smith’s girlfriend has the bad end of their deal.

A few nights a week the couple goes to the University of Toledo’s practice court so Smith, a junior on the basketball team, can put up 100 free throws.

"I count my misses. She counts my makes," Smith said.

That’s why she has the bad end of their deal. Smith is making free throws at an astounding rate — his girlfriend’s count often reaching the high 80s — and is among many Rockets who have enjoyed considerable gains at the line.

One season after leading the Mid-American Conference in free-throw percentage, Toledo is threatening to shatter a 23-year-old league record. Entering today’s home game against Miami, the Rockets are second in the nation at 78.8 percent — a whisker higher than Kent State’s 78.4 clip from 1988-89.

Catching Davidson, which leads the country at 80.7 percent, is not impossible.

"This team has done a great job of buying into making foul shots, but there’s no particular secret of what we’re doing," coach Tod Kowalczyk said.

Every returner from last year, when Toledo led the league at 72.6 percent, has experienced a spike. Rian Pearson has jumped from 68 percent — "which was unacceptable to me" — to 75 percent. Not surprisingly, the MAC’s leading scorer has upped his average from 16.4 to 18.2.

"We talked with him about if he can get to 75 percent, now that becomes 19 to 20 points a game," Kowalczyk said. "So the motivation for him is he wants to score more points, which in turn helps the team."

Julius Brown has improved by six percent to 78, and Reese Holliday by 10 percent to 81. Even Dominique Buckley, who seemingly could go nowhere but down after making 89 percent in 2011-12, checks in at 90 percent. Although Richard Wonnell’s sample size is small — 3 of 4, 75 percent — he is better by 15 percent. Freshman Josh Lemons has blended in nicely with the trend, making 85 percent and scoring six of his 18 points at the line.

Only Nathan Boothe (23 of 34, 67 percent) is below 70 percent among regulars.

"We take it personal to try to get better each and every day, and I think we’ve done a good job of that," Smith said.

The biggest gain belongs to Smith, who is hitting 89 percent — a growth of 17 percent — and leads the MAC because Buckley is short of the required number of made free throws to be eligible. Smith also leads the league in 3-point field goal percentage at 44 percent (22 of 50).

"There’s not a single guy that I don’t trust making foul shots at winning time," Kowalczyk said of the period at the end of a game when things get tense.

One of the team’s accomplishments from the line includes making all 20 attempts against Chicago State, and 26 of 27 against Bowling Green. Against the Falcons, Pearson became the first Toledo player since Tyrone Kent in November, 2008, to make at least 10 free throws in a game without a miss.

The Rockets (9-10, 5-3) hit 28 in a row before finally missing last month in the MAC opener at Kent State. Smith saw his streak of 22 straight end Saturday at Northern Illinois.

Is his inclination for making free throws rubbing off on his girlfriend?

"Nah," Smith said. "She’s a great rebounder though."

NOTES: Kowalczyk said the NCAA has not ruled on the eligibility of Spaniard Angel Aparicio. Kowalczyk had hoped the forward would be able to play a week ago. ... Transfer Justin Drummond will sit out practices the rest of the season with a stress fracture in his foot. He will be eligible next year.



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