It’s two points for a swish, one point for a non-swish make and negative two points for a miss. Sometimes, they’ll play to 21, sometimes to 15. Sometimes they forgo the game entirely and are told they can’t leave until they make 10 in a row.
For Northwestern’s big men — Dererk Pardon, Barret Benson and, on occasion, Gavin Skelly — it is the free-throw line that ends practice.
“Some days it takes five minutes or two minutes. Some days it takes 40 minutes,” assistant coach Brian James said.
On Thursday afternoon, it took four minutes and six seconds of game time — but far longer than that in real time — for Pardon to win the competition. This time, though, the competition was a live game against the Vanderbilt Commodores on the biggest stage of his career. And he proved up to the task, knocking down six free throws in a row as part of a 14-point, 11-rebound effort.
“The past two weeks, he’s been killing me,” Barret Benson admitted, a smile stretching across his face. “Like absolutely destroying me in practice. Like two or three weeks ago, I was on a nasty run. I was the champion for a minute, but he dethroned me again. I can’t be mad about that because you saw how it paid off out there.”
If there were a stage too big for this team or a stage too big for this player, this situation was the perfect opportunity to show it. Pardon is a 51.7 percent free throw shooter. He had missed his first two attempts of the game. The statistical chance of a 51.7 percent free-throw shooter knocking down six in a row is approximately 3.1 percent.
“I just tried to focus in,” Pardon said. “The last time out before my free throws, Coach said, ‘It's about toughness.’ That was in my head the whole time. And before one of my free throws he said, ‘I believe in you.’ And that gives you a lot of confidence.”
To hell with stats. When you have toughness and confidence down the stretch, who needs stats?
Jordan Ash is superstitious.
He’ll gladly admit it, and he’ll take credit for the free throws, too.
“You gotta knock on the wood, knock on the court. I start with like five times. If he missed, then that means it’s off. So I either go up or down; when he makes it I keep it consistent. I did six when he made his first one. I did six every one after he made it.”
The first two makes came with 4:06 remaining. Vanderbilt’s 7-foot-1 center, Luke Kornet, had just knocked down a three to cut what had been a 15-point deficit for his team to just two, the closest the Commodores had been since the 4:02 mark of the first half. A few minutes later, when the lead dwindled to just one with 2:40 to play after three Matthew Fisher-Davis free throws, it was Pardon once again knocking them both down to put the Wildcats up three.
But neither of those trips was more important than the one that unfolded with Northwestern trailing by one after a layup by Jeff Roberson. Bryant McIntosh, as he had done so effectively all game, broke down his man and got to his spot for his patented runner/floater/jumper. It went long. But Pardon skied for an offensive rebound on the weak side, and the lefty center headed to the line for two more.
Swish. Swish. Never a doubt about either one. The Wildcats only made one field goal over the last five-plus minutes: a McIntosh floater. But with Pardon and McIntosh combining for a perfect eight-of-eight from the charity stripe down the stretch, Northwestern was able to continue to score as the Commodores rallied.
“Bryant is a guy you want on the line,” Collins said. “He has ice water in his veins, and you know he's going to make those. But Dererk being in that situation for the first time, really a big growing experience for him to step up there and make those free throws when we needed them.”
Benson, Pardon’s end-of-practice mate and de-facto understudy, had confidence. “Just hit the free throw man, just hit the free throw. You can’t beat me all these times and not put these aways. I’m so glad he made it. He’s got ice in his veins. That’s Dererk Pardon, man. That’s a bad man.”
James, the man who oversees those sessions, though, wasn’t so sure. Was he confident his starting center would make them?
“No, no no” he smiled.
Then he burst into laughter.
Then he reflected.
“I know he really works on it, and he concentrates, and he’s done it before when we needed it. No, I was confident he would put forth his best effort.”
Dererk Pardon has shot hundreds if not thousands of free throws this season. He’s shot them in an empty gym. He’s shot them with Barret Benson and Gavin Skelly and Brian James. On Thursday, he shot them in front of a national audience in an NBA arena with program history on the line. He was focused. He was prepared. He had put the work in and, given the opportunity, he was confident in that body of work
Now, he’s headed to the Round of 32.