LAS VEGAS – When Oregon went into a swoon after freshman point guard Dominic Artis hurt his foot, his replacement Johnathan Loyd received much of the blame as turnovers went up, scoring went down and losses piled up.
But after a homecoming that ended with the redshirt junior raising the trophy as tournament Most Outstanding Player and the Ducks cutting down the nets after defeating UCLA, 78-69, in the Pac-12 Tournament championship game Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, even the most jaded fan had to rescind any past criticism of Loyd.
“This is an amazing feeling,” Loyd said. “To do this in front of my family, my friends, hometown, it’s just an amazing feeling.”
"He was unbelievable for us this weekend,” Oregon senior forward E.J. Singler said. “I've always had confidence in Johnny and I think he was just down on himself. He's had a lot of ups and downs this season, but he has really worked on his game, is always in the gym and this is his payoff.
“He really earned this and I'm just so happy for him that he could have three unbelievable games in his hometown."?
Loyd scored 19 points, adding three assists and two steals. He posted modest numbers for the weekend, with 34 points and nine assists across three games, but was assertive in leading the team.
That clarity in his role was key, Oregon coach Dana Altman said, as Artis continues to work his way back.
“I don’t expect him to go out there and shoot it every night,” Altman said of Loyd. “That’s not my expectation.”
With Loyd “on a roll,” Altman was willing to defer. Loyd scored five straight points midway through the first half, his jumper giving Oregon a 20-18 lead with 9:23 to play, one it would never relinquish.
And every time it seemed as if UCLA would claw back, Loyd delivered a critical play. There was a steal that led to free throws for Carlos Emory, who had a game-high 20 points. There was a jump shot. There was an assist to Ben Carter.
The return trip was far less pleasant for UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad, who like Loyd and Carter also played for Bishop Gorman in high school.
Muhammad, who is all but certain to enter the NBA Draft after the NCAA Tournament, delivered a rather blunt assessment of Pac-12 officials Tony Padilla, Michael Greenstein and Gregory Nixon on his way out the door.
“I don't know what was (with) the reffing today,” said Muhammad, who was called for a questionable offensive foul, leading to UCLA coach Ben Howland receiving a technical for chucking his suit jacket into the crowd. “They were fouling me every time down, but that's how it goes. Refs are going to have their own ego. We just got to play through it."
Muhammad had 14 points and six rebounds, but also committed three of UCLA’s 14 turnovers. Oregon had 15 turnovers, but ended up with a 20-8 advantage in points off them, in large part because of success on the fast break.
Singler, Oregon’s old warhorse with the knees to prove it, felt the team got away from getting out in transition during its mid-season slide.
“We were good early on in the year and I think we got away from it. Just our energy this tournament got us back running and got us back how we were playing in January,” Singler said.
During the run to the program’s third conference tournament championship, Oregon averaged 13.3 points on the break, including a 15-4 edge over UCLA, a team known for trying to push the tempo and feature its athleticism.
"We were getting tired and couldn't run," Muhammad said.
“If we keep on doing that, we keep on playing together, we're a really scary team," Singler said.
All of a sudden, it looks as if Oregon and not wounded UCLA – which clearly missed Jordan Adams (broken foot), which manifested most clearly in a 37-28 rebounding deficit – is the team capable of a sustained run in March, with Loyd looking like he could be a major reason.
Asked about how much more he could do next week, Artis said: "I'm not too sure. I'm just going to take it day by day. That's about it." He played only 13 minutes against UCLA, 51 for the entire tournament.
And in that uncertainty, Loyd stepped up and went from goat to hero.
In this town, your luck can change just that quickly.
Dan Greenspan writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.