Ask any basketball coach or player what the biggest difference between a win and a loss is, and they'll likely give you the same answer: free throws.
Two area youngsters have shown that they can be trusted when called on to step to the line.
Chris Smoak-Brown from Tutt Middle School and Kezyah Holliman from Southside Elementary have advanced to the U.S. regional of the Elks Hoop Shoot Free Throw Contest in Valdosta, Ga., on March 21.
The two shooters advanced through the Georgia state competition at Newton County High School in Covington on Feb. 21.
Reaching this level is nothing new for Smoak-Brown. He won the regional in 2008 to advance to the nationals at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., where he finished in fourth place
"I'm very excited about the chance to go to Massachusetts again," said Smoak-Brown, an eighth-grader who stars on the Tutt Dragons basketball team.
"He's one of the most pure shooters I've ever seen in my life," said Anthony Young, Dragons coach and former North Augusta standout.
It's estimated more than three million youths around the country, ages 8-13, participate in the Hoop Shoot each year.
Smoak-Brown knows you don't make the number of shots necessary to advance to the nationals with luck. He shoots about 100 practice free throws each day.
Despite his regimen, he still felt intense pressure at last year's nationals.
"I was shaking the whole time. I was very nervous," Smoak-Brown said.
For as much as Smoak-Brown has accomplished with a ball in his hand, his best work might come when he's holding a pen or pencil.
"I love basketball and I'm proud of that, but he's an excellent student on the A-B Honor Roll. That's what I'm most proud of," said his mother, Elizabeth Brown.
Holliman, 9, advanced to the regional by making 16 of her 25 shots in Covington. That number was two shots better than her closest competitors.
The 8-9 year old age groups shot from five feet inside the regulation free-throw line.
"She's got a nice shot with a beautiful arch," Augusta Hoop Shoot Chairman Bob Amy said. "She could make it through the regional. We're very hopeful."
Ashlee Crawly (Southside Elementary), Michael Davis (McBean Elementary), Demarcus Armour (Rollins Elementary) and Walnatia Wright (Sego Middle) all reached the state finals but did not advance.
Reach Joey Jones at (706) 724-0851 or firstname.lastname@example.org