Everybody talked about UCLA superstar Shabazz Muhammad’s homecoming.
But it was another Vegas native, Oregon’s Johnathan Loyd, who stole the show and led his team to a win in the Pac-12 Tournament final.
Loyd was the subject of much criticism when he was forced to take over for Dominic Artis but he came into his own in the last few games of the season and in the Ducks’ first two Pac-12 tournament games.
The eventual tournament MVP was a big part of Oregon’s offensive success in the first half — once the men overcame a sluggish start, that is — and hit clutch shot after clutch shot, including a late layup that added an exclamation point to the championship-clinching win. He finished with 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting — all while coming off the bench.
He also had a pair of critical three pointers in the first half. After a sloppy, turnover-filled start saw the Ducks down 12-4 early on, Loyd followed up two straight makes from Carlos Emory with a three pointer of his own to cut the UCLA lead to one and force Bruins head coach Ben Howland to take a timeout. Less than two minutes later with Oregon down just one, Loyd came up with a steal that set up Emory for a dunk. When Emory couldn’t convert, the Ducks scrapped for the rebound and Loyd buried another three to get the lead.
UCLA would answer right back and tie it but another jumper pushed the Ducks ahead to 20-18, a lead they wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the night.
The win gives Oregon — already previously projected to receive an invite — an automatic bid to the NCAA championship tournament for the first time since 2007. It’s Oregon’s third-straight post-season appearance in just three years of the Dana Altman era after a CBI title in 2011 and a deep run into the NIT in 2012.
More importantly, the Ducks’ three wins in Sin City should go a long way toward making the selection committee forget about Oregon tripping across the finish line of the regular season, losing two brutal games to Colorado and Utah.
Oregon’s conference title is also a poetic end to a storybook season: When the Ducks stunned the Wildcats early in the season, a straight-faced E.J. Singler said after the game, “It’s not a high point — we got a lot of season left, and we got some goals we want to accomplish.”
When asked to elaborate, Singler stated the goal plainly: “Win the Pac-12.”