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Danella contributing with improved free throw shooting

Concentration and confidence is the mantra that the Massachusetts women’s basketball team coaching staff tells Kristina Danella to think about when she steps to the foul line.

This year, as a sophomore, Danella already has taken 47 free throw attempts for the Minutewomen. She has almost 20 attempts more than the next player on the list, but what stands out is that, after the Wyndham Miami Thanksgiving Tournament, she has made 42 of those free throws on the season.

In UMass’ victory over Rice on Saturday, coach Greg Williams applied a strategy where his team would intentionally foul the Minutewomen with less than two minutes to play even though the Owls trailed by eight. Williams’ game plan backfired, as his team repeatedly fouled Danella, and she sunk every shot at the free-throw line.

Danella not only finished that game a perfect 12-of-12 from the free-throw line, but also went 9-of-9 in the championship game of the tournament. In fact, Danella is on a remarkable stretch, as she now has 31 consecutive baskets from the free-throw line this year.

“She’s just a great shooter, and when you work hard and you fight, and try to get into the lanes, you’re going to get fouled,” UMass coach Marnie Dacko said of her team’s leading scorer. “When you get fouled it’s how you make teams pay.”

With UMass down by three points and with less than 30 seconds to play in the team’s home opener against Boston University this season, Danella pump faked her defender into the air and drew contact on a 3-point shot instead of shooting a clean jumper to tie the game. She then stepped onto the line and into the spotlight, with the game’s outcome resting in her hands.

“I love that.” Danella said comfortably when asked about the pressure. “I want to be the one shooting with the game on the line.”

Danella then confidently drained all three free throws and sent the game into overtime, giving UMass the momentum to eventually pull a comeback.

A great free-throw shooter always has a set routine, and Danella is no different. She lines up in the middle of the basket by looking down into the nail in the court’s floor, aligns her right foot inches further forward than her left, spreads her legs just tighter than her shoulders’ width apart, spins the ball with both hands, takes a dribble with her right hand and simply shoots.

She led New Jersey’s Shore Conference with 84 percent free-throw shooting in her high school career, but the mark dropped to 74 percent in her freshman year at UMass. This year, Danella not only improved her percentage to 89 percent, but is also making free throws more consistently with more attempts.

Danella doesn’t think her efficiency improved because of any main difference in technique or practice, but thinks that she always shot well. Dacko also denies having any major effect on Danella’s shot by practicing.

“I’m not taking any credit for her free throws,” Dacko said. “She does it, and she’s earned it, and it’s really what they do mentally.”

This year Dacko has given her more freedom on offense, and Danella (15.5 points per game) has learned to draw fouls when driving to the hoop – a technique she modeled after WNBA star Diana Taurasi.

“Last year. I wasn’t a driver and all Coach Dacko wanted me to do was shoot,” Danella said. “So now that she said I can drive, I went back to my old ways and it’s working so far.”

Neil Carroll can be reached at nacarrol@student.umass.edu.

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