Free throws Arizona's undoing -- and could be again
MAR 15, 2014 10:21p ET
As it turned out, Saturday's Pac-12 tournament championship game was that time. Just five days after Arizona coach Sean Miller said his team can't continue to hit free throws at a 50 percent rate and expect to win, the top-seeded Wildcats shot 37.5 percent from the line to leave 10 points on the floor in a 75-71 loss to second-seeded UCLA to give the Bruins the conference tournament title.
The only things staying in Vegas after Saturday were the hearts of the approximately 12,000 Arizona fans who made up the 13,000 in attendance at MGM Grand Arena. They came for a coronation and left with the consolation.
The loss extended a postseason drought for Arizona, which has not won a conference championship since 2002.
"We aren't a good free-throw shooting team, but as we climb the ladder (later into the season) and the teams we play are better and have a lot at stakes themselves, it's tough to win when you go 6 for 16 from the line," said Miller, whose team fell to 30-4. "If we would have shot better from the free-throw line, we would have been in the winner's circle -- there's no doubt in my mind about that. That's something we have to learn from and something we have to do better."
But how much better can they be after averaging just 66 percent as a team for the season? They are what they are. And with the Pac-12 tournament title on the line, it cost them. UCLA went 21 of 25 from the line.
Whether the upset cost Arizona a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament will be announced Sunday, but all indications are that the Wildcats' body of work -- they went into Saturday's game atop the RPI rankings -- will keep them as the West Regional's top seed, playing in San Diego.
"If we are, great; if not, that's all right too," said Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell. "We're just (going to get) ready for next week and whoever we play -- it doesn't really matter what seed we are."
But the road to the Final Four is, of course, most smoothly paved from the No. 1 spot.
Then again, the Wildcats, who were led by Nick Johnson's 22 points, couldn't work any of their top-seeded magic against the Bruins, who seemed determined to prove they could play with Arizona after a 79-75 loss to the Wildcats in Los Angeles in January.
UCLA players said they couldn't shake that game from their memories, especially Jordan Adams, who missed a big shot in that game but put the dagger in Arizona on Saturday with a 3-pointer with 45 seconds left to break a 68-68 tie.
"Coach (Steve Alford) drew it up," said Adams, who had 19 points. "It reminded me back to the day when we played them at Pauley Pavilion. I missed that shot (at the end) in and out, and that shot haunted me. I always told myself if I got another chance, I would knock it down."
Conversely, Arizona freshman Aaron Gordon, expected to be a one-and-done entrant to the NBA draft, most likely won't a chance to get another shot against UCLA. On the Wildcats' ensuing attempt to tie the score, Gordon got free in the corner for an open 3-point attempt but missed.
"I wish I could have that shot back," said Gordon, who looked distraught after a loss in which he finished with 11 points and eight rebounds. "If I shot it again, I guarantee it would go in."
Arizona led 68-66 after a Gordon layup, and that was about as much control as either team had throughout a back-and-forth contest.
But the Wildcats got stuck on 68, failing to score on six consecutive possessions -- they went 3 for 13 during a crucial stretch in the second half -- before Adams hit his shot from beyond the arc.
From there, Arizona went into scramble mode.
"We didn't execute," Miller said of the the Wildcats managing just three points in the final five minutes.
Miller added that, upon further consideration, Arizona didn't need a 3-pointer from Gordon but simply needed a basket because "the team wasn't in dire straits" at that point. Gordon initially drove to the basket but elected to kick it out, then found his way to the corner for the shot.
“If we would have shot better from the free-throw line, we would have been in the winner's circle -- there's no doubt in my mind about that. That's something we have to learn from and something we have to do better.”
"We needed the best shot we could get -- a 2" Miller said. "When you take a 3 -- an ill-advised one -- it starts to dig an even bigger hole."
Nick Johnson's contested 3-pointer moments later was blocked, and Gabe York then missed badly from beyond the arc.
Miller said he was expecting to see more "poise" in that situation. After all, the Wildcats had shown it all year -- thus a record of 30-3 going into the game.
Arizona wasn't helped by its start, either.
UCLA took control early by going into fast-forward against an Arizona team that typically loves to play at warp speed. The Bruins jumped out to a 15-6 lead six minutes in and sustained that advantage for several minutes before the Wildcats got their late wake-up call.
"They generated a lot of points by the pace of the game through transition," Miller said of the first 10 minutes. "It shocked us and knocked us back."
They couldn't have been shocked by their continued inability to hit free throws, though. Gordon, who has struggled badly from the line all season, went 2 for 8, with his six misses alone accounting for more than the final difference on the scoreboard.
"Free throws are mental," Gordon said. "On my end, it's a mentality. I've got to start off with two makes instead of two misses."
If it were that easy, Arizona would have won. And from now on, it's a one-and-done deal. One bad game from the line could be the undoing of a team that seems to have every other piece in place for a run at a national title.
"We talk about it all the time," Miller said. "Free throws win championships."
Sometimes it loses them, too.