Alabama women’s basketball coach Kristy Curry is determined to make sure the Crimson Tide’s free-throw problem from a season ago is left in the past.

Of all the teams in the Southeastern Conference last season, Alabama went to the free-throw line the most. It was a positive sign that her team was attacking the basket, but when her players stepped up to hit the shots, they wouldn’t fall. Curry knew if she wanted her team to be competitive with the top teams in the conference, 65 percent from the line was not going to cut it.

The coach’s search for a solution concluded with a new way her team would end every practice, by climbing the ladder. And no, there isn’t a ladder extending from the court to the second story of Foster Auditorium. Instead, there’s a line of players ready to shoot free throws in hopes of finishing practice on time.

“Climbing the ladder is a drill that I read about Washington’s men doing,” Curry said. “They were working together at the end of practice and putting a lot of emphasis on free throws.”

She’s right. In fact, the drill came into the picture in 2008, one year after the Washington men’s basketball team finished last the country in free-throw percentage, making just 58.6 percent of its attempts. The following offseason, then Washington assistant Jim Shaw pitched his idea of “the ladder” to head coach Lorenzo Romar, and from there it took off.

At the conclusion of every practice, the entire team would line up to shoot free throws one-at-a-time. Each player would get two shots, and occasionally they would be presented with a one-and-one scenario. The drill isn’t finished until the team makes 75 percent of its foul shots. If you miss, you participate in extra conditioning.

The next season, Washington saw its free-throw percentage go up to 70 percent, and the Huskies won the regular-season PAC-10 title.

A miniature wooden ladder is awarded to the Crimson Tide player with the highest free-throw percentage in practice. The ladder sits in the player’s locker for the rest of the week. [Photo/Alabama Athletics]
“The ladder really makes you focus, and if you’re a good free throw shooter, you really have to focus,” Romar said, now an associate head coach at Arizona. “Part of that focus is to make sure you are shooting them the same way every time. It’s about making sure you get the ball at a certain height when you let it go, and not shooting it on the way up.”

The magic number for Alabama at the end of every practice is 21. Because the Crimson Tide has 14 players on its roster, it must make 21 out of 28 free throws if they want to avoid running laps.

“If we don’t get 21 of 28, we have to restart,” Curry said. “You could stay here for 45 minutes or an hour longer. It takes time, but it also builds confidence in one another, and shows how important free throws are.”

The Crimson Tide will also shoot two free throws at random points of every practice, creating 10 shots under pressure each day. The players with the highest percentage win a trophy, which is a miniature wooden ladder that sits in the player’s locker for the rest of the week.

“When you go out there and do the free-throw ladder, we are all accountable for our free throws,” senior Ashley Williams said. “It’s a game-like situation. When you’re tired at the end of a game, you just have to be able to go to the free-throw line and step up and make them.”

Through the first four games of the season, Alabama is right below its mark. The Crimson Tide has made 69 of 93 free throws, good enough for 74 percent.

“I think our kids are taking a lot of pride in free-throw percentage,” Curry said. “We’re seeing our kids each and every day individually climb the ladder, but we are also climbing it together.”

Puerto Rico Classico
Who: Alabama vs. North Carolina State
When: 1:30 p.m. CT, Thursday, Nov. 23
Where: Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
Records: Alabama 4-0, NC State 5-0