By Ryan Murken
Your Prep Sports
IOWA CITY – Matt Haas describes himself as a numbers guy.
So, when Haas joined the Regina coaching staff as an assistant prior to the 2015-2016 season he didn’t waste any time diving into the stats.
One number in particular stood out to Haas – 37 percent.
As in the 37 percent that Sarah Lehman shot from the free throw line during her sophomore season.
“I just told her that’s not good enough,” Haas recalled. “I told her at 37 percent when the game is on the line she isn’t going to be able to be out there.”
Two years later the free throw struggles are ancient history for Lehman.
The senior forward enters Monday’s Class 2A state quarterfinal against Logan-Magnolia (21-3) shooting a career-best 73 percent from the free throw line.
Thanks largely to the drastic improvement from Lehman, top-ranked Regina (25-0) has become one of the best teams in the state at the charity stripe, shooting nearly 72 percent as a team.
“I definitely worked on it a lot, everyone on our team has,” Lehman said. “Practice definitely makes perfect, I guess.”
Lehman converted on just 26 of her 70 free throw attempts during her first season as a starter, good for just a shade over 37 percent.
That same season, Lehman shot 37 percent from 3-point range.
“Everybody would tell me that I shot a better 3-point percentage than I did on free throws,” Lehman said. “That was embarrassing.”
The self-described numbers guru picked up on the free throw percentage shortly after joining then head coach Matt Bolger at Regina.
Regina shot 59 percent from the line as a team in 2014-2015 and Lehman was third on the team in attempts that season as a sophomore.
An explosive player, with a penchant for getting to the basket Haas recognized that Lehman could shoot over 100 free throws the next two seasons.
Haas saw another year of sub-40 percent free throw shooting from the talented Lehman as a wasted opportunity.
“I told her our offense is geared for you to attack,” Haas said. “She got to the free throw line 70 times as a sophomore and I told her we have to get that number to over 100 and if she’s shooting 30 or 40 percent that’s a lot of points we are leaving out there.”
Free throw shooting became a hobby for Haas and Lehman and it came with stakes.
“We worked every day before and after practice and we would always shoot 10 at a time,” Lehman said. “If I didn’t make seven I had to run a sprint but if I made more than seven coach Haas would have to run.”
The improvement showed immediately.
Lehman upped her free throw percentage to 63 percent in 75 trips to the line last year as a junior.
The rise continued this season.
Lehman got so efficient at the line Haas had to change the rules.
“We got to a point about two thirds of the way through the season I had to change it and she had to make eight out of 10 because I was running too many sprints,” Haas said. “We just worked on it and she put the extra time in.”
Lehman ranks third on the team at 73 percent from the line this season while attempting a career-high 106 free throws.
She was 7-of-8 from the line in an 80-67 regional semifinal win over Maquoketa Valley that was the first game of the season for Regina that came down to the wire.
“I have to give credit to coach Haas and coach Bolger on that, she went up a lot last year,” first-year Regina head coach Jeff Wallace said. “This year I think she has gotten stronger and more mature and her technique has gotten a lot better.”
The free throw shooting has helped Lehman turn in the best season of her career.
Lehman ranks second on the team averaging a career-high 15.3 points per game while upping her field goal percentage nearly nine percent to 57.5.
The 5-foot-9 forward ranks second on the team with 4.5 rebounds and has set new career-highs in steals (76) and assists (56) while cutting her turnovers from last season nearly in half.
“We play at a higher level when she is in the game,” Wallace said. “She is our motor. She makes everyone else around her better in so many ways it’s hard to describe.”
Much of the success for Lehman started at the free throw line where the key was getting in a routine.
As a sophomore, Lehman would walk to the line and shoot.
The extra repetition in practice helped make her free throw trips more comfortable.
“I developed my routine and then I just got it,” Lehman said. “I would just do it differently every time and it didn’t work. Getting my routine was important.”
Lehman joins Mary Crompton (87 percent) and Kennedy Wallace (78 percent) as Regina regulars shooting over 70 percent from the line.
The 72 percent Regina shoots as a team leads Class 2A and ranks 10th in the state this season.
It is also the best among Class 2A state tournament qualifiers, where free throws can make the difference in tight games.
“All of our kids are shooting pretty well,” Wallace said. “We put a lot of emphasis on shooting free throws and shooting them in game situations while they are fatigued and we made it competitive and I think all of that has helped.”