All those pro basketball players who miss free throws could learn something from 8-year-old Willy Higgins.
"The kid is a machine," said one coach who watched Willy in a competition recently.
Willy, a third-grader from River Vale, sank shot after shot — 24 in all — on his way to becoming the state free-throw champion. He was the winner in his age group at the 2012 Elks Hoop Shoot contest.
"They gave me this big trophy and a plaque," Willy said afterward. "It felt great to win."
It felt even better Wednesday, when he was standing in center court at Madison Square Garden before the Knicks took on Cleveland. The free-throw champ had earned himself a tour of the facility and the chance to watch practice.
There was Willy watching Jeremy Lin dribbling and taking jump shots. He had his picture taken with former Knick John Starks. Even better, the Knicks won 120-103 that night.
"We got to watch the game from a skybox," said Willy, who said he picked up some drills from watching the pros. "It was great."
Willy will take his skills to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., this month to compete against state champions from Pennsylvania and New York for the regional title. The winner goes on to the national competition in April.
The Hoop Shoot contest is the largest of many youth athletic events held by the Elks Lodges nationwide. More than 3 million boys and girls ages 8 through 13 have participated this year.
There are no tryouts or coaches. Any kid can sign up for a competition at a local lodge regardless of whether they're on a team or have even played before.
Willy's mom signed him up after seeing a notice in the paper. "I thought he should try it out," Kathy Higgins said.
The Hoop Shoot program began in Oregon in 1946. The competition went statewide in 1958 and national in 1972.
In New Jersey, about 400,000 kids competed this year in local competitions held in 115 lodges statewide, said Peggy Berry, state Hoop Shoot director. The Elks also hold soccer shootouts and other youth competitions.
"The youth are our future and we do our best to get involved," Berry said.
Among those who participated in the Hoop Shoot this year were 10-year-olds Molly Suss and Kathleen Davis. The two fourth-graders from Wayne got ready by shooting free throws in Molly's driveway after school every day.
"We got so good even my older brother doesn't mind playing with me anymore," Kathleen said. "I actually beat him at HORSE the other day. He says he slipped on the last shot, but I think he was just embarrassed."
Though they weren't among the 72 who made it to the recent state competition in Plainfield, they plan to try again next year. "We can do it together," Molly said.
For Willy, the state contest began with his usual precision.
"The first 10 shots, I got 9 out of 10," he said. But then, the basketball just couldn't find its way through the net. "Then I was 11 out of 15," Willy said.
By the end, he was tied with another boy, 20 out of 25.
They went into overtime. Five shots. The other kid sank three. Willy got four.
"I wanted to win," Willy said.
Willy considers basketball his favorite sport "by far." He plays forward and guard on both his town's recreational team and a travel team. And while he's not the kind of kid who's out in his driveway taking shots at all hours, between the two teams, he ends up playing every day.
"Before practice, I always take five to 10 jumpers or free throws," he said. He's often the one the coach will send in to take a free throw if a player is injured.
He's so committed to basketball that even though he had to be in Plainfield early for the state competition, he convinced his parents to hurry home after he picked up his trophy so he wouldn't miss a game that afternoon.
"I couldn't miss the game," he said.