When American University forward Beth Shearer attempts a free throw, she pessimistically yells, "It's off!" as the ball approaches the hoop.

"My teammates can tell by the tone of my voice if the ball is going in or not," Shearer said. "Plus, when you scream that and then you hear that nice 'swish' sound, it's like in-your-face."

More often than not -- 85.0 percent of the time, to be exact -- Shearer hears that sweet swishing sound. This season, despite a mediocre Eagles record, Shearer and her teammates are making free throws at a record pace.

Through Tuesday's games, American (11-12) was third among NCAA Division I women's teams with a 77.2 percentage. Ahead of the Eagles were George Washington (15-7) at 79.5 and LaSalle at 79.0. All three could break Kentucky's record of 78.8 percent set in 1984.

"We are very confident from the stripe," said Shearer, a senior who is 12th in the nation in free-throw percentage. "During the game, it's like, 'Go ahead, foul us, put us at the line.' The other team has a better chance of beating us if they let us shoot {from the floor}."

Besides Shearer, guard Janine Lorimer (75.6 percent), center Kia Cooper (77.8) and guard Danielle Blackburn (76.5) are sharp from the foul line.

"Free throws are like given points," said Shearer, averaging 20 points per game. "It's a sin to miss them."

The Eagles made 20 of 21 foul shots in a 79-69 loss to Howard on Dec. 7. Their worst performance was 60 percent against Virginia Commonwealth three weeks ago. In contrast, the AU men's team is making 60 percent for the season.

But none of that compares with George Washington's performance in its double-overtime victory over West Virginia last month when the Colonials made 41 of 50 attempts. Both totals are Atlantic 10 and school records.

"In practice, there's more emphasis on quality than quantity," said Colonials forward Kas Allen, who is shooting 84.2 percent and is 16th nationally. "You can take 200 free throws and get the mechanics down, but it doesn't matter unless you can make them in a pressure situation."

Instead of shooting a lot of free throws, GW Coach Linda Makowsky puts her players in pressure situations. A player will go to the line after a defensive drill and be told she is in a one-and-one situation with 10 seconds left.

At the end of practice, each player shoots two free throws. If the players don't hit a total of at least 80 percent, sprints, pushups or situps are in order.

"I remember last year we were running sprints for 20 minutes until we finally got the free throws," said Makowsky, whose team is 15-6, 9-3 in the conference. " . . . It's a mental exercise, not a physical one. You have to say, 'I can hit an open, 15-foot shot.' . . . "

Junior forward Tracey Earley is third on the team at 82.0 percent. In her freshman season two years ago, she was sixth in the nation at 87.3. Sophomore guard Karin Vadelund makes 82.5 percent. No starter is below 70 percent.

If the game is on the line, don't put the Eagles or Colonials at the line. "It's an uncontested shot. How can teams not shoot free throws well?" Makowsky said.