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March 15, 2014

Free throws cost Arizona Pac-12 tournament title

LAS VEGAS -- The growing concern about fourth-ranked Arizona throughout an otherwise dominant regular season was its 66.1 percent free-throw shooting.

As the struggles mounted, with a few improvements sprinkled in, the message from the Wildcats was that the improvement was coming. That is until before the start of this week's Pac-12 Conference tournament. UA head coach Sean Miller said the team couldn't expect to connect on just half of its free throws and still win.

And certainly not 37.5 percent.

Arizona (30-4), the top seed and regular-season Pac-12 champions, missed 10 of 16 free throws, and No. 2 UCLA won a back-and-forth affair Saturday in the finals, 75-71, to capture the program's fourth tournament title.

"Free throws are mental," said Aaron Gordon, who missed 2 of 8 attempts. "On my end, it's just repetition. It's a mentality. I've got to start off with two makes, instead of two misses. That's really what it comes down to. I just need to make free throws."

UCLA guard Kyle Anderson nabbed tournament most outstanding player honors after scoring 21 points to go with 15 rebounds and five assists.

The sophomore had 31 total rebounds in UCLA's three victories, tying him for seventh all-time in tournament history.

"It means a lot," Anderson said of the honor. "But first and foremost, I couldn't have done it without winning the championship, and that took a team effort. Me knowing I helped my team out today, it means a lot to me."

But it was Jordan Adams' go-ahead 3-pointer, while falling down, with 45 seconds to play that snapped a 68-68 tie.

"These guys have really been committed," said first-year UCLA head coach Steve Alford, whose team has won five of six and locked up the league's automatic NCAA tournament bid. "We got an edge to us now, which is a lot of fun and to win a championship means a great deal."

It also proved to be the second consecutive season Adams would end UA's Pac-12 tournament run on a decisive 3-pointer. But, instead, the shot brought back memories of a moment in the lone regular-season meeting between the teams, which Arizona won on the road, 79-75, in early January.

"I missed that shot in and out, and that shot haunted me," Adams said. "I always told myself if I got another chance, I would knock it down. And coach trusted me to shoot it, and that's when I made it."

The basket also ended a sloppy, turnover-filled, field goal-less drought by both teams that lasted more than three minutes. But UA's lasted a little longer - including a potential game-tying, but contested Gordon air ball on a 3 from the corner with 23 seconds to play.

"I wish I could've had that shot back," a distraught Gordon said. "If I shot it again, guarantee it would've went in."

The Wildcats had another chance to even the score, however. After Anderson missed the front end of a 1-and-1, Nick Johnson drew contact but was blocked beyond the arc by Norman Powell. By the time Johnson's next 3-point attempt went in with 2 second left, snapping a five-minute drought without a made field goal, it was far too late.

But the story was at the free-throw line, where the points have been anything but this season for the Wildcats. UA made just 6 of 16 attempts, while UCLA converted 21 of 25.

The Bruins were 17 of 20 in the second half.

"We talk about this all the time: Free throws win championships," said UA head coach Sean Miller, whose team has now lost three title games since 2011. "To UCLA's credit, they went 21 for 25. For us to overcome 6 for 16 when the other team's 21 for 25, it's tough. It wasn't one player. It was a collective group. If we make more free throws today, we're probably out there doing what they're doing."

Adams scored 19 points and Powell added 11 of his 15 in the first half for the Bruins, who won despite shooting 25.9 percent in the second half. UCLA finished the contest at 43.1 percent.

The ending and personal woes spoiled an otherwise all-around performance from Gordon, who finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and eight assists to make the all-tournament team. Johnson, who started the game 1 of 5 from the field, made eight of his last 15 and scored a game-high 22 points to earn his own nod on the team.

The game featured seven ties and 10 lead changes.

Arizona will still likely be one of four No. 1 seeds when the NCAA tournament's field of 68 is announced Sunday. But the woes from the charity stripe have re-opened doubt over how deep of a run the Wildcats will make.

"In some games, free throws have won us the game," said UA point guard T.J. McConnell, who split a pair of his own. "It's kind of just a mental thing. I'm not really worried about that. We'll just play hard like we do all the time and we'll be fine."

After feasting off transition baskets created by their defense in the first two games of the tournament, the Wildcats forced just one first-half turnover for two fastbreak points in the opening half. Execution in the halfcourt was imperative, and a slow start only highlighted that.

Elliott Pitts and Gabe York, who came off the bench for the first time since Feb. 14, provided the shooting touch. Pitts pulled UA within 14-6 on a 3-pointer, and York connected on his first three attempts from long range.

But after York's second of the half, the Bruins answered with 12 of the next 18 points to push the advantage to 11 - the largest lead of the half.

York was 0 of 3 from beyond arc the rest of the way.

Arizona hung around thanks to Gordon, who started the game on a near-triple-double pace. Known for his own aerial attack, the freshman was on the giving end of a halfcourt lob to Johnson that cut the deficit to 33-31 with less than four minutes left.

A Gordon free throw later trimmed the margin to 1, before UCLA bumped the advantage to 3 by halftime.

"We were much better defensively in the second half," Miller said. "But we can't warm up for the first eight or 10 minutes, spot them some baskets that we normally don't get and then expect to win in March."

A perfect NCAA tournament bracket submission can win $1 Billion in the Quicken Loans Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge with Yahoo Sports. Join the GOAZCATS.com pool today.

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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