Matt Hanson stepped to the line Thursday night knowing full well he hadn’t made a free throw in a game for more than three weeks. There were only 1.4 seconds left, and if he could make one this time, his team would probably win.
As 1,676 people nervously looked on, Hanson went in his mind to his favorite fishing spot, Clubhouse Lake in his home state of Minnesota. His second try fell through the net like a sinker cast into water, giving the Cal Poly men’s basketball team a 57-56 win over UC Irvine.
“Fundamentally, my shot’s fine,” Hanson says. “For some reason free throws are all mental for me. I just have to get in a good mental spot, relax and visualize myself being there.”
Hanson, who has shot 36.2 percent from the charity stripe during the season, arrived at his solution with the help of team psychologist Jeff Troesch.
“(Troesch) said, ‘Matt, it’s not whether you make or miss them – it’s the process, what you think about,’ ” Cal Poly head coach Kevin Bromley said. “You can’t be thinking about, ‘I’ve got to make these because of the consequences; if I make them I’m a hero, if I miss them I’m a goat.’ ”
Bromley, who called it an “art not to think about anything when you get to the free-throw line,” said that through going to the lake, “that way he’s not thinking anything.”
While Hanson has freed his mind at the free-throw line, it’s the Mustangs’ opponents who’ve had to think of ways to match up with the 6-foot-7, 220-pound senior forward who shoots 42.9 percent from the 3-point line.
“He’s versatile,” Bromley says. “He’s got a nice jump hook, can stretch defenses a little bit – he’s an unselfish person, and really positive. Guys really like him as a teammate.”
The Plymouth, Minn. native has shot 51.4 percent overall from the floor in averaging 8.4 points and 5.4 rebounds this season. His latter average ranks 10th in the Big West Conference, and all of the players above him play more minutes per game than he does.
Perhaps his most memorable college basketball moment came Jan. 28 at Pacific, when he hit a 3-pointer from the top of the arc with under two minutes remaining to break a 59-59 tie, giving the Mustangs a permanent lead in their 69-64 win nationally televised on ESPN2.
On Thursday, the Mustangs didn’t seem to be overly concerned with their teammate’s free-throw woes.
“Free-throw shooting is all mental,” Cal Poly center Titus Shelton said. “We had confidence in Matt. That’s where you want to be at the end of a game.”
Hanson’s own deep-rooted assuredness goes back to Maranatha High, where he was an all-state selection as a senior, when he posted 23.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.
From there, Hanson began his college career at Vermont, for which he played 22 games in 2003-04. In the first round of the NCAA Tournament, he went 3 for 3 from the floor on behalf of the Catamounts in nine minutes off the bench for seven points in a 70-53 loss to eventual national champion Connecticut, which boasted five future NBA players, including stars Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon.
Hanson then transferred closer to home, to Division II St. Cloud State in St. Cloud, Minn., where he started 27 games in 2004-05, averaging 9.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game before transferring again, the second time to Cal Poly.
“I actually never saw the school until committing out here,” Hanson said. He explained he first heard about the school through Mitch Ohnstad, who played at Cal Poly before transferring to Minnesota in 1997.
“He told me he knew coach Bromley well, and that’s how it all came to be,” Hanson says.
Bromley and the Mustangs coaching staff jumped at the chance to add him.
“At St. Cloud State, he was playing and doing well,” Bromley said. “But at the same time he was thinking, ‘I’m a D-I player,’ so he put some feelers out.”
Hanson, who had to redshirt in 2005-06, has since become “an ambassador to (the Cal Poly) basketball program,” Bromley says.
In November 2007, Hanson’s brother, David Hanson, a senior 6-foot-6 wing also from Maranatha, signed a national letter of intent to play at Cal Poly.
“I’m glad he made his decision to come out here,” Matt Hanson said. “Academically and sports-wise, it’s a great opportunity to come out here.”
For now, Hanson, 23, is focused on helping the Mustangs (9-13, 4-6 Big West) prepare for the conference tournament, held in Anaheim from March 12 to 15 after they play out their seven remaining regular-season games.
The biology major plans to graduate in the spring and says he would like to try to play professionally overseas, possibly in Australia.
Having traveled so much, it seems he should have no trouble making himself at home wherever he may land.
“I’ve been on the East Coast and lived in the Midwest, but this is such a great place to live and a great school,” Hanson said of Cal Poly. “Obviously I’ve been around, and I’m really glad I made the move I did.”