Around the SMAC

Every coach preaches the importance of making free throws. Thomas Stone's boys are not only listening--they're responding.

The Cougars, who were shooting 50 percent as a team from the free-throw line though their first five games, have made over 70 percent in the past four outings. The precise foul shooting has been especially crucial the past two games--overtime wins over Chopticon and Patuxent.

On Jan. 5 against the Braves, the Cougars hit all eight of their foul shots in overtime. Friday against the Panthers, they were even better, connecting on 22 of 24 free throws for the game.

"Everyone knows you can either win ballgames or lose them at the line," Thomas Stone Coach Steve Datcher said. "We lost a close one to Calvert earlier this year because we couldn't hit our free throws at the end. That, at least for the moment, doesn't seem to be a problem anymore."

Senior center Harshod Spells and junior guard Robert Naylor have been particularly accurate. Spells was 11 of 12 from the line Friday; Naylor went 9 of 10. John Brown did not try a free throw Friday, but hit eight consecutive foul shots against Chopticon.

Datcher said his team practices free throws the way all his teams have: Players are encouraged to shoot free throws on their own before practice. Then at the end, when they are good and tired, they shoot two free throws. One miss and they run five laps. Two misses and they run 10.

"It's simple," Datcher said. "But it's working."

Braves' Up-and-Down Season The season has been rocky for Chopticon's girls, contrary to Coach Tony Lisanti's preseason expectations. The most consistent thing about the 5-4 Braves has been their inconsistency. They have won back-to-back games only once.

But don't count the Braves out yet. Lisanti, for one, is still optimistic.

"My big three have been playing well; we just have to get a more consistent contribution from the other girls," Lisanti said. "But I think it's coming. It has taken us a while to figure out what we needed to do to win, but now we've started to put things together."

The leaders of the team--or the "big three," as Lisanti calls them--are senior forward Jessica Ritchey and junior guards Tia Briscoe and Shonta Countiss.

Ritchey, the Braves' top all-around player, is averaging 16 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4 steals and 2 blocks per game. Briscoe, the team's primary ball-handler, is averaging six assists per game. And Countiss, who does a little bit of everything for the Braves, is coming off a season-high 20 points Friday against Westlake.

Correction

Southern Maryland Extra's Jan. 6 edition misidentified the most valuable player at the McDonough Rams Invitational. Thomas Stone's Ashley Blandford won the award.

GAMES OF THE WEEK

* Boys

Great Mills at Westlake

Friday, 7:30 p.m.

Great Mills led the SMAC at 7-1, 3-0 going into last night's games. Westlake, the defending league champions, are 3-6, 2-1 but had won two straight before last night's game against Patuxent. What the Wolverines had been missing was scoring from the perimeter, and in last week's win over La Plata, they got it. Freshman guard Denzel Satterwhite scored a career-high 19 points to complement the inside play of Randy Starks. Westlake's challenge will be matching the inside-outside game of Great Mills big man Alan Hoyt and guard Jermaine Saunders.

* Girls

Thomas Stone at La Plata

Friday, 5:30 p.m.

No team has been able to stop Thomas Stone, but many have come too close for Coach Robert Pitts's comfort. The Cougars (9-0, 3-0 before last night's game) have won four of their past five games by four points or fewer. Senior forward Jewel Clark is leading the way but also has been getting help from guards Ashley Blanford and Tyane Washington. La Plata is 3-5 overall, but is 2-1 in conference and has sharp-shooting point guard Necka Lancaster.