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Practice makes perfect

Ahearn focused on improvement with every stroke

Posted: Friday January 19, 2007 2:42PM; Updated: Monday January 22, 2007 12:58AM
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Blake Ahearn is trying to become the first player in NCAA history to lead the nation in free-throw shooting four years in a row.
Blake Ahearn is trying to become the first player in NCAA history to lead the nation in free-throw shooting four years in a row.
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Can you name something you've done since you were in fourth grade? Blake Ahearn can, and he has a chance to make NCAA history because of it.

The Missouri State senior guard led the nation in free-throw shooting as a freshman (97.5 percent), a sophomore (94.7) and a junior (93.6). This season, he is second at 94.3 percent, trailing Butler's A.J. Graves, who is an unfathomable 82 for 83 (98.8 percent).

Should Ahearn win the free-throw shooting title again, he will be the first player ever to lead the nation in a statistical category four years in a row.

And it all started in fourth grade.

Ahearn began recording his shooting workouts in a black book every time he went to a gym, and he's still doing it now. One of his coaches told him to "shoot with a purpose," so Ahearn decided tracking his shots was the best thing to do. For 12 years, whenever he's been in a gym, Ahearn has recorded his misses and makes, writing them down on a piece of paper and later copying them into his current black book.

"It definitely puts pressure on me to make shots," Ahearn said. "If you see yourself writing down your percentages, and if you see them falling, you know you are doing something wrong and you need to adjust. It definitely helps."

Missouri State coach Barry Hinson calls Ahearn, "the positive side of obsessive/compulsive," and his dedication to his craft reflects that.

"It is the best feeling in the world when you are the only one in the gym," Ahearn said. "Then you know that you are the only one working. It is something I love."

Hinson says his staff tries to limit Ahearn's work on off-days, but "Blake doesn't take days off. We let him work on his shot, but that's it. In the four years that I've coached him, I've never looked out the window of my office and seen him working on defensive slides."

Ahh, the whole defense thing. Ahearn admits he's never been a big fan, and he's been benched on more than one occasion because of it. But as a senior, Ahearn has rounded his game enough to become one of the top players in the Missouri Valley, the nation's premier mid-major conference. He's averaging 16.3 points and is shooting 51 percent from three-point range, up from 38 percent the first three years of his career. While he likes the notoriety of his free-throw prowess, Ahearn is proud of the development of his overall game.

"When people mention my name, the first thing that comes to mind for some people is free throws," he said. "But my game is a lot more than just free throws. Hopefully it is not all that people see."

People also might not see the amount of trash-talking the 6-foot-2 guard likes to do.

"Larry Bird was one of my idols," Ahearn said. "Talking trash was a big part of his game. I like doing it. It forces me to step up my game. If I'm doing well, I'm going to let you know about it. I've definitely had refs tell me to be quiet because sometimes I get a little too loud. The under-the-breath comments are usually best and most effective. They'll catch me every now and then, but it doesn't really stop me."

And no one can stop him at the foul line, where he repeats the same routine he started in -- you guessed it -- fourth grade. Three dribbles, wipe the hands on the shorts, find the valve of the ball, put the index finger as close to it as possible, then, "let it fly." Barring an unthinkable collapse, he will break Gary Buchanan's career mark of 91.3 percent (Ahearn's career percentage is 95.1).

"He is the best free-throw shooter ever in the history of the NCAA because he's earned it," Hinson said. "I don't know how many coaches can say the word 'ever' when they talk about a player."

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