Ancient history now, that time Brandon Slater got back to Villanova’s huddle inside Madison Square Garden, 2.8 seconds left in the Big East quarterfinal. Slater had just made a free throw – the biggest of his life – tying St. John’s. A timeout was called by St. John’s to give Slater more time to get inside his own head, one more free throw to go for the win.

“Oh, man – I was so dialed in,” Slater said of that moment.

You’re ready for this …

We practice this every single day …

Those were his teammates talking, Slater said, the sounds he remembers hearing, nobody sidestepping the importance of the moment.

Each practice, Villanova has a thing they do called Win the Game.

“Every single day,” Slater said.

“No fear of missing,” Jermaine Samuels said is the point of the process.

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This season, they rarely do. Against Houston, they never did, 15 for 15. The six ‘Nova players who played more than two minutes each had multiple foul shots in the NCAA South Region final, no misses. In a game where the winners advanced to the Final Four by scoring just 50 points, those free throws made the difference, as Houston scored 44 while making 9 of 14. Flip the foul shooting, a different school is advancing to face Kansas in the NCAA national semifinals in New Orleans.

At this point, Villanova is reaching for the highest ground ever achieved at the foul line. There is an autographed basketball at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame signed 38 years ago by players from the best free-throw shooting team in NCAA men’s Division I history, Harvard, 1983-84, 82.2% from the line.

Here is Villanova, at 83.0%.

You wouldn’t have guessed at the beginning of the season that Villanova would chase this record. First road game at UCLA, Villanova made 10 of 15; the Bruins made 17 of 19, and won in overtime. The next time Villanova lost, to Purdue, a similar game as UCLA, when the Wildcats couldn’t hold a second-half lead. That day, Villanova made 9 of 17 and Purdue made 12 of 14. There also was a late missed free throw in a last-play loss at UConn. All part of the process, Jay Wright said. Like leading a major golf tournament on Sunday. Losing can feed into eventually winning.

“We put the work in,” Wright said. “We can’t put any more work in.”

A late miss by Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, now in the NBA, was crucial to Villanova’s 2021 quarterfinal upset to Georgetown.

“Can we live with that?” Wright said. “Yes. Is it anybody’s fault? No. Is there anything else we could have done? No. So if that’s the worst thing that happened to us, we can live with that.”

Wright then hit on the biggest factor in his mind as to why Villanova is dominant from the stripe. It happens to also be the top reason they’ve reached this Final Four. They’re old.

“It’s the culmination,’’ Villanova’s coach said. “When you have older guys, there are a lot of habits that you create within your program that really become solidified in your older guys. Free-throw shooting is something that we work very hard on.”

It’s simplistic, but Villanova also is good this season because there are no weak links. Sometimes a center might be a handful inside but a mediocre free-throw shooter. Eric Dixon isn’t that center. He’s made 82.5%. Only one of the five players who will start against Kansas shoots under 80%. Collin Gillespie leads at 90.5%.

“I think it’s really proven out to us that the process works,” Wright said. “If we had a freshman who was playing a lot, I think that guy would not have had all the time doing all the things we do.”

“When I first got here, I wasn’t good,” Slater said, who said he was pretty good in high school but there’s less carryover than you might think. After making 6 of 17 free throws in limited time his first two seasons, Slater went up to 60% last season, then shot up to 87.8% this season. “When you get to the line, it’s a different feel for the game in college. In high school, it was easier. It’s just the feel of the game – me, like, exhausting more than in high school. College is a little faster, heavier on you. You’re banging bodies more. Sometimes, that’s an adjustment period. For me, it was.”

That includes missing a big one along the way. Caleb Daniels missed that late one at UConn. Since then, he’s made 20 of 23, his percentage up to 85.1%.

Daniels is an interesting case since he transferred to Villanova from Tulane, where he was top scorer. As a freshman, Daniels made 80%, then dropped to 68.7% as a sophomore. After moving to ‘Nova, he sat out a season, then made 79.2%.

“Your mental is what matters most when you approach the free-throw line,” Daniels said.. “How are you going to approach it? Are you going to have confidence in yourself to make this shot, to be in the moment, to lock in? Or are you just going to wish that it goes by?”

That’s the first part, Daniels said.

“The second thing, your form,” Daniels said. “Following through, making sure that your guide hand is staying with the ball as well. Staying locked into that.”

Form adjustments after he got here?

“A little bit here,” Daniels said. “They taught me to set the ball before I actually released the ball. Make sure everything is tight. Before I didn’t really have the details down, how I have it now.”

Nobody sets the ball better than Dixon, who drew quite a few opponents into the lane early for violations. The big man doesn’t have a hitch. He just sets the ball as instructed for a beat.

“I would hope it’s on the [opposing] scouting report,” Dixon said. “I don’t really get it. I don’t understand. I really don’t. But it happens. I set it. There’s no pump fake. I do it every time. I do it every single day the same way in practice. I don’t get it.”

They all trust what they do … “set, lift,” Dixon said. “Trust the mechanics.”

Of course, they work on it. “Before practice, during practice, after practice,” Dixon said. “On our own time. Everything you can think of, trying to put pressure on, every situation.”

“You’re always creating habits, no matter what you’re doing,” Gillespie said. “If you’re going to do it, you may as well do it game speed, game repetitions. I think that’s what we do.”

It’s the same thing every year – “the same thing over and over again,” Gillespie said. “We did the same things in 2018, 2019 – all five years I’ve been here, we’ve always done the same things.”

Villanova made 77.9% in winning the 2018 NCAA title, then 72.8% in ‘19, 75.9 in ‘20, and 76.3 in ‘21. That all suggests that Wright is correct, having veterans is what’s going on here. You can’t say the shorter Villanova rotation is the whole thing since players outside the primary six-man rotation have made 37 of 41 in their limited minutes.

Kansas makes 71.9% of its free throws, after making just 13 of 26 in beating Miami, after a more impressive 20 of 28 in beating Providence and 19 of 20 in beating Creighton. Which Jayhawks team shows up at the line will have a huge bearing on this one.

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A reporter from the Wall Street Journal asked Wright this week if he thought opponents, knowing the strong percentages, tried to defend Villanova in a way to foul the Wildcats less?

“Great question,” Wright said. “I have not noticed that. We have honestly not looked at that. I’m a coach, I think we’re getting fouled all the time – every coach does. That would be something really interesting to look at.”

“Some games, we know, you might not make them,” Gillespie said. “Some games, you will. Doesn’t matter if you do or you don’t because you know you prepared for that.”

Whatever happened with Slater at the foul line in that tie game with one more foul shot, trying to avoid a Big East quarterfinal departure for the second straight year? Well, Villanova’s practice drill isn’t called Miss the shot, we’ll try again in overtime.