With Artis still struggling to recapture the form he had prior to suffering the foot injury that sidelined him all of February, Oregon coach Dana Altman again turned to Johnathan Loyd to run the team most of the game. The Las Vegas native made the most of the chance to play a big role in his return to his hometown, erupting for a season-high 19 points to lead the Ducks to a 78-69 victory over UCLA in the Pac-12 title game.
"It was really exciting to do this in front of my friends and family," Loyd said. "I've put a lot of work in with my dad, so it means a lot that he can see me do this."
The performance from Loyd was a sign of how much more confident he is now than when he entered the starting lineup out of necessity last month when Artis got hurt. Not only was Loyd 6 of 28 from the field in his first five starts, the BYU transfer also struggled to run the team, committing five turnovers against Washington and six against Stanford.
Loyd has taken care of the ball much better recently and has begun to have more success as a scorer. He has now tallied double figures in five of Oregon's last seven games, a welcome boost for the Ducks with Artis not having scored more than six points in any of the six games since his return.
"When I took over after DA went out, that was the only time I really second-guessed myself because I struggled a little bit," Loyd said. "That was the only time I was low. I've got more confidence in myself now. When I see a shot, I'm stepping into it like I mean it."
Typically a pass-first point guard whose outside shot is erratic at best, Loyd ditched that style and started firing away against UCLA, especially after he felt he had the hot hand in the first half. He scored in the lane and from the perimeter, sinking 8 of 14 field goals and 2 of 4 threes.
The trust Altman placed in Loyd was never more evident than when Artis fired a pass intended for E.J. Singler out of bounds with 3:25 to go and the Ducks ahead by seven. Altman immediately replaced Artis with Loyd, who played the rest of the game for Oregon and celebrated the victory by flexing his arms and pointing into the section of the crowd where his friends and family were sitting.
Oregon's chances of making an NCAA tournament run would improve dramatically if Loyd could duplicate his production from Saturday night, but Altman was careful not to put pressure on the junior to get out of his comfort zone.
"I want Johnny to play his role, to run the team, to take shots when they're open and when he likes the shot," Altman said. "I don't expect him to go out there and shoot it like this every night. That's not my expectation.
"He was on a roll and he felt it tonight, and there were a couple that I said, 'What are you doing?' And he looked at me and nodded his head and said, 'I know that was a bad one, Coach. But I'm on fire."
Seated next to Altman at the podium with a piece of net tied to his backward cap, Artis grinned at his coach's words. He has endured plenty of rough shooting games, but he picked an ideal time to catch fire.
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