LAS VEGAS, Nev. – You couldn’t write a better script. The local high school star comes back to his hometown and comes off the bench to lead his college team to a major conference championship, and along the way, picks up the tournament Most Outstanding Player award.
Johnathan Loyd, a Las Vegas native son, came off Oregon’s bench for the third straight night, but played so well in the Pac-12 Tournament championship game against No. 21 UCLA that he had to stay on the floor.
Scoring a season-high 19 points, Loyd also dished out three assists, and had two steals to help the unranked Ducks defeat the Bruins 78-69 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena Saturday night. With the win, Oregon receives the league’s automatic entry into next week’s NCAA Tournament, Oregon’s first invitation to the Big Dance since 2008.
Loyd’s nonstop effort on defense is nothing new to Duck fans. His defensive ability has never been questioned. It was his aggressive offensive production on this night that gave Oregon the advantage and quieted his critics.
Normally a guy of many words, Loyd could barely speak when asked what it meant to him to come back home and play so well. He said simply, “This is an amazing feeling. To do this in front of my family, my friends…my hometown. It’s just an amazing feeling.”
The statistic of the game had to be Oregon’s overwhelming bench scoring advantage over UCLA, 41-7, with Loyd and Carlos Emory providing the bulk of it. Emory led all scorers with 20 points and provided the Ducks some much-needed firepower early in the contest. His all-around hustle and energy helped turn a sloppy, turnover-filled game into a non-stop, fast-breaking one. Oregon committed 11 of their 14 turnovers in the first half, but eight of those came in the first six and a half minutes of the game.
Emory said, “We all needed each other to win this game tonight. My teammates were looking for me. They were trying to get me the ball and I was trying to attack the basket, just like my coach tells me to.”
After Oregon settled into the game and cleaned up the early turnovers, they became aggressive and set up plays that attacked the basket or opened up shooters coming off screens. The Ducks had tremendous success with Loyd running the Pick and Roll, where he would come off high screens set by the big men, and then attack the basket or pull up and hit a jumper.
UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad, another Vegas native son, said, “Johnathan really hurt us today with the way he played.”
After UCLA went up by eight less than six minutes into the game, the Ducks relaxed a bit, cut back their turnovers, and became more aggressive while starting a run of their own. The Oregon surge was sparked by Emory, Loyd, and Damyean Dotson. For the third game in a row, Dotson scored in double digits by halftime. Last night, he had 11 of his 13 in the first half. Because of his efforts over three days, Dotson made the All-Tournament Team.
The Ducks closed the period on a 35-18 run to lead at halftime, 41-32. That nine-point Duck lead was a good sign, as Oregon was undefeated this season when leading by eight points or more at the break. Two of the Duck first half points came following a technical foul on the Bruin bench. The free throws and score on the following possession helped Oregon pull away.
After Emory drew a charge on Mohammad, UCLA coach Ben Howland’s suit jacket flew into the stands. He was promptly accessed a technical foul. “That’s the first time I’ve had a technical in 11 years,” Howland said. “I was very embarrassed to lose my composure. It’s a terrible example for our team to have their coach behave in such a manner.”
UCLA closed the gap in the second half, but every time the Bruins got close, the Ducks would hit a bucket to answer. UCLA only played seven players in the game and fatigue became a factor. They were missing one of their leading scorers, Jordan Adams, who broke his foot on the final play of their semifinal win over Arizona, and his loss was significant.
With 12 minutes to play, UCLA’s Larry Drew II hit a three-pointer to pull the Bruins within two, but that’s as close as they would get. Loyd hit a jumper, Arsalan Kazemi made a steal and took it to the hoop for a powerhouse dunk, and the Ducks were once again in control.
Oregon had tremendous success on the offensive glass, led by Emory and Kazemi. The Ducks outscored UCLA 16-9 on second chance opportunities. Kazemi recorded his ninth double-double of the season, collecting 12 points and 12 rebounds. He was relentless in his pursuit of rebounds, and his vise-like hands rarely lost a ball once it was secured. For his efforts in the title game as well as his overtime performance against Washington, Kazemi was named to the All Tournament Team.
Without much production from the Oregon big men, coach Dana Altman gave Ben Carter more significant minutes, and the freshman, who also hails from Las Vegas, relished the opportunity. Carter scored just two points, but he grabbed five rebounds and contributed solid defense during his 18 minutes.
Carter said, “We knew we had this in us. We had a cold streak to end the Pac-12, but we realized we could do this. We’re talented enough. We work hard enough. We’re capable of winning championships.”
Altman said, “I’m very happy for our four seniors. It was their last opportunity to have some tangible evidence that they helped us bring our program along. And I’m happy for the rest of the team. Johnny really picked himself up and gave us a big night.”
Exactly one week ago, the Ducks were reeling. Having lost two games that eliminated them from a regular season championship, the team was despondent. Altman said, “I think it’s safe to say that we were probably as low as we could get. But we bounced back.”
“Life…basketball, you know, you’ve got to look ahead, Altman said. “You can’t look back. You keep learning from your mistakes, but you keep looking ahead.”
With a championship trophy in tow, the Ducks came back to Eugene in time for today’s Selection Sunday tournament pairing announcement. Altman and the team doesn’t care who or where they play.
“We’ll be excited when we see where we’re going and who we’re playing,” Altman said. “We’ll be excited to play that first game.”
Follow Luke Roth on Twitter: @luke_lukeroth