Almost perfect: USF’s Laksa leads nation in free-throw shooting

Kitija Laksa has made 52 of 53 free throws this season
USF junior Kitija Laksa has sunk 52 of 53 free throws this season. (JOEY KNIGHT | Times)
USF junior Kitija Laksa has sunk 52 of 53 free throws this season. (JOEY KNIGHT | Times)
Published Jan. 26, 2018

She never has walked off a floor totally satisfied with her performance. Even when she torched Southern University for 40 points earlier this season, USF junior Kitija Laksa found glitches in her game.

"I could've gotten more (than six) rebounds," she said.

But during this mid-morning interview inside the Muma Center, self-critique is momentarily set aside. Instead of picking apart her flaws, Laksa is asked to demonstrate the flawless.

So the 6-foot Latvia native steps to the free-throw line, right foot slightly in front of the left, and bends her knees. Then she bounces the ball three times, lifts the ball to about chin level with her elbows cocked at nearly a 90-degree angle, and releases.

Swish. Swish. Swish. Same form, same three bounces, every time.

"I never leave the gym without like, making at least 10 in a row," she said.

To say practice makes perfect would be trite. To say it in Laksa's case would be darn near accurate. Currently the country's best free-throw shooter (male or female, any division), Laksa is 52-of-53 from the stripe this season. Which is to say, she's shooting nearly her body temperature (98.1).

The daughter of Latvian boys basketball coaches (including a 6-foot-9 dad), she enters Sunday's home game against Temple riding a streak of 42 consecutive makes, putting her more than halfway to the women's Division I record (70) set by Bowling Green's Lauren Prochaska in 2010.

"You have to do it every day," she said.

At USF, it's a prerequisite. Per Coach Jose Fernandez's edict, every player must shoot 50 free throws daily, be it before or after practice. Makes and misses are charted.

"That seems like a norm right now," said Laksa, a unanimous first-team All-American Athletic Conference pick as a sophomore. "Shoot them and make them, chart them."

And yes, she has hit all 50 more than once.

"That's a goal every time I shoot my free throws every day," said Laksa, whose 19.9 points per game lead the Bulls (15-5, 5-2). "But sometimes it's just like, 'You missed one,' and I'm like, 'Ahhh.'"

The proficiency isn't limited to one stripe. That 40-point night against Southern? Laksa missed her first 3-point attempt, then hit 11 in a row, setting an NCAA single-game record for any division.

"(Teammates) made the extra pass," she said that night. "They found me, they were looking for me, and I just had to make the shots."

Eleven of twelve.

Fifty-two of fifty-three.

Prodigious. Preposterous. But not quite perfect.

So Laksa bounces, bends, and keeps shooting for utter flawlessness.

"I don't remember the last time I was happy about my own performance," Laksa said. "Not so much happy but like, 'Yeah, I reached my top.' There's always (places) I can still climb, somewhere I can go and just move forward."