Tulane forward Melvin Frazier stepped to the line for a critical free throw against East Carolina on Wednesday night, dribbled once and released the shot.

It clanked off the back of the rim.

He gathered himself, went through the same routine and tried again.

The ball hit the back of the rim, ricocheted off the front and bounced out.

Coach Mike Dunleavy can point to several shortcomings in Tulane's four-game slide-the inability to stop dribble penetration, blown block-out opportunities and stretches of bad offense-but the one element he keeps coming back to is missed free throws.

Cameron Reynolds missed two in a row against Temple with 4:58 left as the Green Wave protected a one-point lead on Feb. 4. The Owls scored at the other end and led the rest of the way.

Reynolds missed two more with 24 seconds left at Tulsa when Tulane led 80-78 on Feb. 8. The Golden Hurricane tied it and won in overtime.

Frazier's errant shots came with 1:48 left as Tulane tried to cut a 78-75 deficit. The Wave ended up getting a tying 3-pointer from Reynolds before losing on two late free throws, but if Frazier had hit his freebies, the entire sequence would have changed.

"That's what it comes down to," Dunleavy said. "If we just make our free throws, we win. It's three games now."

Instead, Tulane (13-12, 4-9 American Athletic Conference), which entertained thoughts of contending a month ago, has sunk to a tie for 10th place with East Carolina, ahead of only South Florida at the bottom of the league. The Wave will try to get out of its rut against Memphis (15-11, 6-7) at 2 p.m. Saturday in Devlin Fieldhouse.

The free throw misses are even more frustrating because none of the offenders are brick-layers.

Reynolds is shooting 70.5 percent from the foul line after hitting better than 80 percent over the previous two seasons.

Frazier is slightly better at 72.3 percent. Jordan Cornish, who split a pair of free throws three times in the second half against East Carolina, is at 71.4 percent.

Tulane is tied for fourth in the AAC in free throw percentage at .707 and ranks sixth in conference games at .704. Unfortunately, the touch at the foul line has vanished when it mattered most.

"We've executed and gotten to the free throw line with guys we'd like to get to the free throw line," Dunleavy said. "We spend a lot of time on it every day in practice and try to create pressure situations for it. Like I tell the guys, as much as we spend time on it, you need to spend more time on it."

At each practice, players have to shoot 100 free throws and are charted for how many they make. During a running drill that require players to pass the ball down the court in groups of three and convert 10 lay-ups in 60 seconds, Dunleavy picks one guy to take a free throw at the end. If he misses it, the group repeat the drill.

For whatever reason, the work has not paid off down the stretch of close games.

"They care," Dunleavy said. "I've come back after a game here (at Devlin Fieldhouse) and guys will be in the gym shooting at the free throw line or someplace where they've struggled that night. We just have to be the best at the right time."

Memphis had lost five of six before winning at injury-depleted SMU on Wednesday, creating plenty of heat on veteran coach Tubby Smith in his second year with the Tigers.

It is another huge opportunity for Tulane to end its drought.

"We can beat anybody if we make a high percentage of the high percentage shots we get," Dunleavy said. "From a coaching standpoint that's all we're trying to get to. We're trying to put guys in areas they are capable of making shots."

They can start at the foul line.

Follow Guerry Smith on Twitter, @guersmith