MORGANTOWN — When West Virginia went up big and fell down bigger in the final three minutes of regulation in last week’s loss to Kansas, when the Mountaineers went 7 for 11 at the free-throw line, committed three turnovers and bungled the final possession of regulation, the head coach “absolutely” had the right players in the game.
Among the five Bob Huggins thought were right was forward Elijah Macon, which was absolutely the right move. It’s absolutely conceivable Macon will be in at the end of games at the end of this season.
Out of nowhere, Macon, previously less reliable than a coin flip at the free-throw line, is among WVU’s best at the stripe.
“All summer, man,” said the fourth-year junior from Columbus, Ohio, by way of Huntington and also New Hampshire. “I shot free throws all summer. All I was focused on was shooting the same shot.”
Macon shot 48.6 percent in his first two seasons and was only a little better at the start of this season, when he made 17 of his first 30 attempts. He’s 17 for 22 in the 11 games since then.
That’s 77.3-percent, and only Lamont West, at 81.8 percent, is better for the entire season. Macon’s 65.4 percent for the season is sixth among the Mountaineers and best among those who play his position, and consider WVU’s trouble finishing games at the foul line this season.
Flash back to that Kansas game. Huggins took Macon out with 2:15 to go and put in Dax Miles. Naturally, Miles was fouled and badly missed two foul shots. Instead of a 10- or 11-point lead, the Mountaineers were up just six when the Jayhawks made a 3.
Huggins swapped Miles for guard Beetle Bolden, perhaps the best perimeter shooter on the team, and Macon and Bolden started tagging in and out to switch defense and offense. Bolden, though, was fouled on one possession and went 1 for 2.
Combine Miles and Bolden. That’s 1 for 4. Macon has been above 75 percent for more than a month now. That would include going 3 for 4 in the first of two overtimes in Saturday’s win against Texas Tech, a win that might have been decided if Miles hadn’t gone 0 for 2 and Jevon Carter hadn’t gone 1 for 2 twice in the final 2:15 of regulation.
This is part of a subtle awakening for Macon. In the same last 11 games, he’s averaged 7.2 points. Points are good, but individual scoring isn’t too important at a spot that relies on the combined contributions of Macon, Sagaba Konate and Brandon Watkins. But Macon also reached double figures in scoring once as a freshman in 2015 and three times last season. He didn’t have one such game this season before scoring 13 points on Jan. 18. He has 17 and 10 the past two games, and it’s just the second time in his career he’s reached double figures in back-to-back games.
Yet it’s the free-throw shooting that is impossible to ignore.
“I went back and watched old Julius Erving videos,” he said.
Erving was his late mother Renai’s favorite player, and Macon, who prays and connects with his mother all the time, decided to believe the numbers. Erving shot 77.7 percent in his career and was above 80 percent three times, including the last of his 16 pro seasons.
“It struck me to go watch his free throws, just knowing he was one of the greatest players of all time,” Macon said. “I wanted to watch some old players instead of the new players, this new generation. I wanted to see the old guys. Back in the ’80s, they didn’t really have this and that. They shot the ball regularly. I just wanted to go back and watch his technique and how he used to shoot the ball.”
Macon’s routine is simple. Simple to practice. Simple to perform. There is no excessive dribbling, no taking the ball behind his back. It’s a few steps and a few seconds.
“I felt like I was just dribbling and thinking too much about it going in instead of just shooting the shot, the same shot that you know is going to go in,” Macon said. “Every time you go up there, you know it’s going to go in because every day you shoot them the same.”
He pins the ball to his left hip with his left arm, stands up straight to address the rim and takes one breath. He spins the ball back into his hands, dribbles once, spins it again and shoots. It’s short, smooth and successful, and Macon hopes it’s contagious.
Dr. J has turned him into WVU’s shot doctor.
“It’s kind of different for everybody,” Macon said. “Jevon holds the ball. I’ve actually told him. I called him. ‘If you miss a free throw, I know what you’re doing wrong.’
“He has this thing where he pauses for a minute. I’m like, ‘If you pause over three seconds or whatever your time limit is you pause, you’re going to miss it. You do it every time you miss. I’ve counted.’ ”
Carter shoots 75.6 percent for his career, by the way. He incorporates multiple breaths, spins and dribbles into his routine. But he was 4 for 4 against Texas.
“Man,” Carter said with a laugh and a sigh, “don’t listen to Elijah. Elijah’s just talking. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”