On Jan. 5 Pierre Pierce, Iowa's leading scorer, was fouled as he launched a three-pointer with 1.6 seconds to go in a tight game against Michigan. When Pierce, a 52.4% free throw shooter, missed two of his three foul shots, the Hawkeyes lost 65--63, thus ending their nine-game winning streak. In Hartford three days later, Ann Strother, UConn's second-leading scorer, was fouled on a three-point attempt with 3.9 seconds remaining and the Huskies down two to Tennessee. Strother, who shoots 57.1% from the line, missed two of her three gimmes, allowing the Lady Vols to win 68--67.

If Indiana had fouled Charlotte's Brendan Plavich on Dec. 22 as he launched his improbably successful 45-footer at the buzzer, the Hoosiers might have won, too, instead of losing 74--73. Plavich may be among the Conference USA leaders from beyond the arc (40.3%), but he makes only 46.2% from the charity stripe.

Why are so many otherwise good shooters bricking it from the line, the one place they aren't guarded? Coaches point to two trends: the general deterioration of fundamentals as high school players spend more and more time playing on AAU teams rather than practicing skills, and the siren song of the highlight reel. When you saw players shooting on their own 20 years ago, says Texas Tech women's coach Marsha Sharp, "it was from the free throw line. Now they're shooting from the three-point line."

This priority shift is reflected in the box scores. NCAA associate director of statistics Gary Johnson reports that through Jan. 10, three-point shooting in men's Division I was up slightly from last season (to 34.8% from 34.6%), and free throw accuracy had dropped from 68.8 to 67.9. The women are just as off target from the line, their numbers falling from 68.9% last season to 67.6% now.

While shooting traditionally improves as the season progresses, coaches who are reluctant to devote more of their limited practice time to free throw drills are in a quandary. "It's an individual skill that kids have to develop on their own," says Iowa State women's coach Bill Fennelly. "Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer players who are willing to put more time into it. Free throw shooting is not an exciting thing to do."

It does offer rewards, however. Wake Forest, which entered last Saturday's game against North Carolina shooting 65.9% from the line, was a perfect 32 of 32 as it ended the Tar Heels' 14-game winning streak 95--82. When Kentucky's Patrick Sparks drained three in a row with 0.6 of a second on the clock in a 60--58 victory at Louisville on Dec. 18, he didn't just win the game and make the highlight reel; he also became a statewide legend.

COLOR PHOTOALLEN KEE/WIREIMAGE.COM (PIERCE) ACHILLES' HEEL Pierce, Iowa's top scorer, inexplicably shoots only 52.4% from the line.