UK Women's Basketball

Victoria's secret cure: hard work in practice

It was the expression of a woman in a horror flick just as she comes face to face with the person with the mask and the nasty, sharp knife.

"There would be this look of complete terror on her face," Coach Matthew Mitchell said, describing Victoria Dunlap as she stepped to the free-throw line her first season at Kentucky. "She was very, very scared."

Her statistics that season were nearly as scary as that guy with the blade.

The UK forward made just 40 of her 101 free-throw attempts, 39.6 percent.

"I never really had confidence in myself to make free throws," Dunlap said. "I was terrified. I didn't want to shoot free throws at all."

Now she doesn't mind them so much. Kentucky's leading scorer, rebounder, blocks and steals leader is also among its best free-throw shooters.

Eight games into this season, Dunlap is only seven free throws shy of making more than she did her entire freshman season. The junior has made 77.3 percent of her free throws so far.

Dunlap has many, many theories about why her free-throw shooting was so bad.

She has almost as many theories as she had ways to attempt a free throw.

"I'd shoot it 10 different ways," she said.

Dunlap would try to limit her guide hand's responsibility, then she'd try to shoot without her pinkie finger and then she'd try to shoot with her elbow out, then her elbow in close to her body.

"I've airballed it; I've hit the left side of the backboard; I've hit the right side of the backboard," Dunlap said.

It's been a perennial problem for the 6-foot-1 junior from Nashville since she started in high school. Her coaches at Brentwood Academy would use a wrap to try to hold back her non-shooting hand.

Dunlap thinks that a series of growth spurts might have been part of the problem. As she progressed through high school, her hands would keep getting larger and that would alter her shot.

But mostly, Dunlap says, it was mental.

"I've missed so badly in so many different ways — like airballing in front of a bunch of people," Dunlap said. "Everybody's watching me and looking down and then I'd feel the pressure."

Mitchell said the UK staff might have made that part even worse when Dunlap was a freshman.

"We may have worked with her too much, and it may have gotten too mental," Mitchell said. "Maybe we made too big a deal out of it, and she really locked up."

As a sophomore, her numbers got slightly better, making 55.6 percent (85 of 153) of her free throws.

But being a career 49.2 percent free-throw shooter was not what Dunlap wanted.

So last summer she got in the gym and shot 500 free throws a day several times a week for nearly four months.

She sought the help of shooters that she wanted to emulate such as teammates Amber Smith and Amani Franklin.

"I take full credit," Franklin joked earlier this season. "I told her to slow down, take her time and follow through. She was kind of pushing the ball up there. So I just told her to relax, take her time and follow through, let it roll off her fingers."

Mitchell rolled his eyes a bit when told of Smith and Franklin taking credit.

"Amber and Amani are taking credit for her free-throw shooting?" Mitchell said laughing. "That's interesting. We'll have to see what they did. They did a fine job, I'll tell you that."

The pats on the back need to go to Dunlap, Mitchell said.

"The commitment that Victoria Dunlap has made is amazing," he said. "Give her a lot of credit for what she's been able to do to transform her game."

In the Butler game this season, Dunlap made 13 of 15 free-throw tries. She hasn't missed more than a single free throw in her past four games, including going 6-for-6 against Cincinnati last week.

That has pleased Mitchell greatly.

"You need your best player to be able to make free throws because the ball's going to be in her hands a lot," Mitchell said. "It's very, very important."

Dunlap was looking at her statistics earlier this week with Franklin.

She jokingly pointed to their free-throw numbers and reminded the senior that her numbers so far (77 percent) are better than Franklin's 75 percent.

"Maybe you need to get in the gym or something," Dunlap told Franklin with a smile.