A week after letting the conference title slip away, the Ducks were not about to let it happen again. Especially for a couple of veteran leaders coming off the bench.
You couldn't ask for a worse start to the championship game than the Ducks provided on Saturday night. Less than 6 minutes into the game the Ducks already had 7 turnovers and trailed Ucla by 6 points. Altman made a decision to go to his bench early like he always does, and Emory and Loyd provided a much needed spark.
After hitting a slicing layup Emory came back and drained a deep three. Loyd followed it up with a three of his own and the Ducks were within 2. That seemed to get the team going as Dotson hit a three, Loyd made back to back shots, and then Dotson hit another three to put Oregon up 5 with 8 to play in the half.
From there Oregon would never look back.
Even though Ben Howland called a timeout (which seemed to be at the most inopportune times for his team all night) Oregon added to their lead finishing the half on a 7-4 run that put them up by 9. Emory, Loyd and Dotson all finished the half in double digits. Loyd was brilliant off the bench going 5 for 7 from the field, 2 for 3 from three with 12 points in the first half.
The second half started much like the first with Oregon struggling to get anything going offensively. Oregon tried to establish themselves in the paint, but Woods was swarmed and turned the ball over consistently or forced up off balanced shots.
After Ucla got the lead to 5 on a layup and a foul by Singler, Atlman went to his bench again. Carlos Emory and Johnathan Loyd were once again the answers. Every time Ucla thought they had a run that could get them ahead of the Ducks, like they have done so many times this week, Emory and Loyd had an answer.
Whether it was the half court alley-oop to Emory in the first half from Artis, or the rolling bank from 15 that Loyd hit mid way through the second that pushed the lead back to 4. Emory and Loyd had an answer.
There were other stars on the night as Arsalan Kazemi continued progressing back to his old form with another double-double, or Damyean Dotson with his continuation of getting the Ducks going early like he's done all tournament. Ben Carter was solid in his playing time pulling down 5 rebounds, and EJ Singler was masterful hounding Shabazz Muhammad and keeping him from sparking any kind of Ucla run.
But this night belongs to Johnathan Loyd and Carlos Emory.
Loyd, a native of Las Vegas who let everyone know it after the game, took home tourney MVP, and deservedly so. Emory led all scorers with 20 and provided the night cap with a follow up dunk with :21 seconds to go that left everyone screaming.
There is no waiting to see if the committee puts this team in the tourney. Oregon is in. They left no doubt. Headed back to the NCAA Tourney for the first time in 5 years. Three years after Dana Altman took over as coach.
Congratulations to Coach Altman. He was great the entire tourney. Trusting certain guys, challenging certain guys, letting them play, calling timeouts, and generally managing a bunch of college kids back from their lowest point of the season to their highest point in less than a week. If you would have asked any Oregon fan 3 years ago when they hired Altman if they'd take an NCAA Tourney appearance and conference championship within 3 years, I doubt you'd find one that would turn you down.
This week has been a great run for the Ducks, knocking off one of their biggest rivals, beating a hot Cinderella team that beat them less than a week later and finishing it off with a win over the regular season champs. The Ducks look to be rounding into mid season form right at the right time. Their bench is deeper due to the improved play of Loyd, Emory and Carter. They are battle tested in tournament and neutral stadium situations, and they have a coach calling some of his best basketball of the year.
All of this is happening at the best time for the Ducks.
Many teams will be waiting to here whether or not their number is called on Sunday, but not the Ducks. It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when and where. If you enjoyed this week of tournament play from your Oregon Ducks, then get ready, cause it's only getting started.
We're headed to the dance baby. Conference Champs 2013!