In hindsight, there were several things that went wrong for UNLV in Saturday’s 69-67 loss at San Diego State.
Both on paper and on the film, though, one stood out more than others.
“For everything that took place, if we just shoot free throws better, we win the game,” Rebels coach Dave Rice said following Monday’s practice. “There are a lot of things that could have been, but nothing as tangible as that.”
UNLV (16-3 overall, 0-1 Mountain West) was 11-of-21 from the stripe, and each of the five Rebels who stepped to the line missed at least one attempt.
While free throw shooting has popped up to bite UNLV in close games several times in recent years, the team’s success in that department this season has gone mostly under the radar. A lot of that is because Saturday was UNLV’s first close loss this season.
Entering Saturday, UNLV was shooting 70.8 percent from the line as a team, including a 74.6 percent mark in its previous 14 games. The showing in San Diego dropped UNLV to 69.9 percent on the year, tying the team for 135th nationally with Montana, South Carolina and top-ranked Syracuse.
Whatever the reason, things fell apart for UNLV at the line at Viejas Arena.
It marked only the fourth time this year that the 14th-ranked Rebels have shot below 60 percent as a team from the line, and it appeared to simply be a snowball effect stemming from their poor shooting everywhere else on the floor. The Rebels were just 24-of-68 from the floor, making it only the second time this year that they had shot below 40 percent in a game.
“It’s very disappointing,” said junior guard Anthony Marshall, who despite a game-high 26 points had four missed free throws. “You look at the free throw percentages, and you say ‘If we would have hit three more, we would have won the game.’ So, things like that, you can just look at them, move on and put pressure on yourself — Not in a negative way, but in a constructive way.”
Marshall’s words mirrored what went down at Monday’s practice, where the team put up more free throw attempts than normal in between drills.
Then, at the end of the practice, as per usual, the entire team lined up on the baseline, and players were selected at random to come out and shoot one free throw until three were made. For every miss, the entire team had to sprint the length of the floor and back in under 10 seconds.
Before it started, Rice reminded his team of the importance of free throws and how they ultimately affected Saturday’s outcome. He said that he felt he’d been easy on them last week during their daily practice-closing routine. On Monday, the team ended up running five sets of sprints before three went through the twine, as no mercy was shown after each of the five misses.
The overall message was that he’s still confident in his team’s ability to come through in the clutch at the line, but the importance of one of basketball’s easest shots can’t be forgotten.
“We were concerned early on, in our exhibition game and first few games, when we didn’t shoot free throws well,” Rice said. “We talked about it and this was the first time it’s really jumped up and gotten us.
“My thing is it’s no different how I feel when our guys get ready to shoot a jump shot. I always tell them I believe this: When the feet are set, I believe every shot is going to go in. That’s my mindset, and that’s how I am with free throws. I’m very positive where that’s concerned.”
They key now for UNLV is trying to make sure that Saturday’s poor free throw shooting doesn’t become the norm.
“When you’re making free throws, it makes the game a lot easier,” Marshall said. “We know we’re a good free throw shooting team, we know we’re a good shooting team overall. We just had a letdown, and for us to be the team we want to be, you have to eliminate that.
“The thing about good teams is they never let one game dictate the season. We can’t have a rollover effect where we go into Wednesday (against TCU) still thinking about San Diego State.”