STORRS, Conn. — University of Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun couldn't help but tease Glen Miller Wednesday morning as the Huskies headed home after their 74-71 victory at Villanova Tuesday night.
"You just keep taking credit for the free throws," Calhoun told his assistant coach. "I want you to keep taking credit because, if they start missing again, I want you to be held responsible for that, too."
For the first time this season, the Huskies (11-1) can joke about their free-throw shooting. Winning a Big East game on the road -- especially while going 26 for 30 from the line -- does wonders for a sense of humor.
Miller has become UConn's designated free-throw-shooting coach. The Huskies, who go after their ninth consecutive victory against Central Connecticut (1-11) Thursday in Gampel Pavilion, have put extra emphasis on their free-throw shooting since hitting only 54 percent in their nine non-conference games. That extra time, Miller's tutoring and the added rush of Big East competition have combined to make the Huskies a drastically improved team from the line.
In their three Big East victories, the Huskies are shooting 77.4 percent (65 for 84) from the line. Tuesday night's 86.6 percent effort was the best of the season. During UConn's 31-6 season a year ago, the Huskies topped that percentage only once. In the NCAA East Regional final against Duke, the Huskies hit 11 of 12 free throws (91.6 percent).
"We'll take it," Miller said, looking at the box score from Tuesday's game. "Of course, we used to take 70 percent."
Villanova forced the Huskies to put the game away from the line and UConn responded by hitting 15 of 18 free throws in the final nine minutes. By outscoring Villanova 26-11 from the line, UConn was able to offset six turnovers in the final seven minutes that made a nine-point UConn lead evaporate into a near loss.
"Now the guys are stepping up there, taking foul shots, and they're comfortable," Miller said. "Lyman (DePriest) and Rod (Sellers) were the only guys who needed to change their strokes. Now Rod has a few games under his belt shooting the way I want him to. He's just got to keep shooting his numbers (in practice) and get confident.
"It's just been minor adjustments for a few of them. We were confident all along that Chris (Smith) would start shooting foul shots. He has. He just got off to a slow start. With guys like (Scott) Burrell and Murray Williams, it's a timing thing. Scott's arm was straightening out too soon. You don't have to change his stroke, you just keep working on it."
Miller has taken his Fabulous Five -- Burrell, Williams, Sellers, DePriest and Toraino Walker -- through several extra sessions of shooting recently. They shoot an extra half hour before practice and have had special pregame shooting practices as well.
"Burrell (13 for 15 in Big East games) swears he doesn't belong there any more," Miller said. "Now we can't take him out because he's got to show the way for the other guys. He's staying.
"A lot of it is concentration, especially with guys like John (Gwynn) and (Smith). We saw the same pattern last year. We were a better foul-shooting team in the second half down the stretch."
The Huskies seemingly have perfect timing. Their stroke from the line returned on a night when they were uncharacteristically sloppy with a nine-point lead. In the final seven minutes against Villanova, UConn managed only three shots from the field, turned over the ball six times, and went 8 for 10 from the line.
Sellers and Steve Pikiell each were called for traveling. Walker threw away a pass. The Huskies threw away an inbound pass against double-team coverage and Sellers hit the backboard with a pass.
"We just did a couple of things we haven't done -- especially with the mood we're in," Calhoun said. "By mood I mean I think we came in with a good mood to win the game. We got complacent. Villanova just kept coming at us and finally we gave in a little bit."
There were other plays Calhoun remembered as costly. A missed layup by Williams with just under 10 minutes left was one. And a panicked pass from Sellers -- when he should have gone up for a dunk -- that Smith couldn't handle in the lane with 24 seconds left gave Villanova a chance to tie the game.
"You've got to remember we're not a perfect team," Calhoun said. "If we were, Murray's layup would have been a layup. Sellers' bobble would have been a dunk. I could keep on going. If some of those plays had been made earlier and quicker, we would have been up by 11 or 13.
"When you're on the road, teams do come back on you. They're allowed to do that. We made a couple of mistakes down the stretch, but I didn't feel we were losing our poise. ... I think we should have pulled away. We didn't and we can't get sloppy. But I think the kids just believe they're going to win. That's why it's important that we keep on winning."