LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Nothing comes free, especially in this gambling town, unless a team is shooting from the “free” throw line.
Even then, for Arizona, those attempts proved to be costly.
“Free throws win championships,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said in a press conference while UCLA celebrated its Pac-12 tournament title on the MGM Grand Garden Arena court.
Arizona's 37.5% free throw shooting (6 of 16) was the worst of the Sean Miller era.
Free throws lost a championship for Arizona, which is 0-for-3 in Pac-12 tournament title games under Miller. All of the defeats went down to the last minute to Washington, Colorado and UCLA. The Wildcats have a Pac-12 tournament title drought of 12 years.
Arizona (30-4) tried 16 free throws against UCLA and made only six in the 75-71 loss. The Wildcats played in front of a partisan Arizona crowd, many of which covered their eyes when Arizona went to the line.
“We left points on the board,” a visibly upset Aaron Gordon said, barely audible, in the Arizona locker room. “I missed too many free throws. As a team, we shot 6 for 16. It’s something that I take very seriously.”
Gordon was 2 of 8 from the line, decreasing his free-throw percentage to 43.5 percent. As a team, the Wildcats are shooting 65.5 percent from the line as they head to the NCAA tournament, most likely to San Diego as a No. 1 seed.
In their three games in Las Vegas, the Wildcats made only 27 of their 46 free-throw attempts (58.7 percent), the worst among the four teams (Stanford, UCLA and Colorado were the others) that played three games in the tournament.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Nick Johnson each missed a free throw in the front end of a one-and-one situation with less than 4 minutes remaining.
“We just got to focus more with free throws,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “It’s pretty tough with the crowd and this atmosphere out there. If you focus, you know, I think you’ll be good.”
#arizonawildcats finish the season 30-4. The 4 losses have come by a combined 11 points…think about that for a second.
Arizona was stuck on 68 points for five crucial minutes because of the missed free throws by Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson.
The Wildcats went scoreless from 5:02 remaining until 2 seconds were left following a Johnson desperation three-pointer that cut the lead to 73-71. It was too late. UCLA’s Norman Powell sealed the game with two free throws on the other end after a quick foul by Gordon.
UCLA (26-8) converted 21 of its 25 tries at the line. The 15-point edge in free throws was too much for Arizona to overcome. Not even a stellar defensive effort in the second half, when UCLA shot only 25.9 percent from the field, was enough to make up for the deficit.
Pac-12 all-tournament team: Aaron Gordon, Nick Johnson, Askia Booker, Joseph Young, Chasson Randle and MOP Kyle Anderson.
Miller said he stressed to his team after the game that they need more “poise”, including their free-throw shooting.
Following an Arizona timeout with 34 seconds left in the game, Gordon tried an ill-advised three-pointer in the corner that drew only air. UCLA’s Tony Parker rebounded the miss and the Bruins held on to their 71-68 lead with 23 seconds left.
Miller looked at Gordon and asked, “Why?”, incredulously as the freshman headed down the court after Arizona quickly fouled. UCLA’s Kyle Anderson missed the front end of a a one-and-one giving Arizona another chance with 19 seconds left. Johnson and Gabe York missed subsequent three-point attempts and the end was near.
Nick Johnson got banged real hard on that three point attempt.
David Wear converted two free throws with five seconds left to put UCLA ahead 73-68.
“We could have looked for a quick two, and we ended up settling for a quick three,” Miller said. “We talked about that in the locker room — more poise.”
Gordon said he wishes he “could have that shot back … If I took it again, I guarantee it would go in.”
The same could be said of his six missed free throws and the 10 missed chances by Arizona overall at the line.
“If we would have shot better from the free-throw line, we’d have been in the winner’s circle,” Miller said. “There is no doubt in my mind about that. That is something we have to learn from and hopefully we can bet better.”
The time is now. March Madness begins Thursday.