Two days after its most humiliating loss of the season, UCLA engaged in some sobering reflection and took lots of free throws. Lots and lots of free throws.
Shooting guard Prince Ali estimated that he took about 200 free throws during what he described as a competitive practice Monday before the team departed on its trip to the Midwest to face Cincinnati on Wednesday. If players didn’t make a given percentage of their shots, they were forced to run as punishment.
“We ran one time,” Ali said. “But we made it every other time.”
Struggles at the free-throw line were one of the primary culprits in the Bruins’ 74-72 loss to Belmont on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion. UCLA made 12 of 28 attempts (42.9%), including nine of 24 (37.5%) in the second half and three of 14 (21.4%) in the final eight minutes.
“As poorly as we played, we still win that game if we just make foul shots,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said. “At a 50% clip, we would win that game. So it’s a mental thing, it’s a toughness thing, but it’s a free shot; it should not be that difficult of a shot.”
The Bruins work on free throws before, during and after practices. Some players linger for additional shots and others come in on days the team isn’t practicing. Alford said he’s increased the number of pressure situations that are simulated in practice with the hope of payoff in games.
Significant improvement is needed for a team that is making 61.1% of its free throws on the season, worst in the Pac-12 Conference and No. 338 nationally.
Free throws weren’t the only area where the Bruins (7-3) had issues against Belmont. Alford said the team met just one of its 12 goals for each game, the lone success being that it took 28 three-pointers.
Every other area was a failure. UCLA’s halfcourt offense was stagnant, its defense repeatedly gave up backdoor layups and its effort was lagging.
“We saw more than 15 plays when we were just awful,” Ali said, alluding to film review of the game. “We were dogging it. We gotta be better. That’s on us.”
Alford said the loss represented “two or three steps back” for a team that had taken an equal number of steps forward since sustaining consecutive defeats in Las Vegas last month.
“So as I told the guys, we’re pretty much right where we left in Vegas,” Alford said. “That’s not where we wanted to be coming into this trip, but that’s reality.”
After facing the Bearcats, the Bruins will travel to play No. 15 Ohio State on Saturday at the United Center in Chicago as part of the CBS Sports Classic.
Another big problem for UCLA against Belmont was largely ignoring the biggest player on the court.
Moses Brown, the Bruins’ 7-foot-2 freshman center, took a season-low two shots and scored six points in 18 minutes. Alford said he’s told his team that Brown needs to be more involved in the offense.