- Jason King
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LAS VEGAS -- Dana Altman sensed the tension the moment he stepped on the airplane.
Hours earlier, his Oregon basketball squad had squandered its chance at a Pac-12 title by losing a road game to Utah -- the league's 10th-place team -- in the regular-season finale. Most of the Ducks were slumped in their seats when Altman boarded the flight that would take them from Salt Lake City to Eugene.
Eye contact was avoided.
No one spoke.
"It was a like a morgue," said Altman, whose team had also lost at Colorado two days earlier. "Everyone looked completely done. There were a lot of counseling sessions Sunday night. I had to think of something to to say to get their heads back up."
Altman must've found the magic words.
One week after the road trip from hell, the Ducks stood in the middle of the MGM Grand Garden Arena Saturday night hugging and dancing and posing for pictures. Confetti danced in the air, trophies were hoisted and nets were trimmed from the venue's iron rims.
Moments earlier Oregon had defeated UCLA 78-69 in the championship game of the Pac-12 tournament. The title may not be as prestigious as the regular-season crown, but heck, the Ducks weren't supposed to be here anyway, remember? Altman's squad was picked in the preseason to finish seventh in the league standings.
Make no mistake: This was a major and sooner-than-expected accomplishment for a program that is still in the early stages of rebuilding under Altman, who last week was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year.
And with the start of the NCAA tournament less than a week away, the timing couldn't have been any better. After what happened last weekend, the Ducks were desperate for a momentum boost before Selection Sunday.
"I put too much pressure on our guys to win that darn conference [title]," said Altman, whose team is 26-8. "We got on our heels and didn't play very well. That's as much as my fault as anybody's.
"It was a tough week. A lot of negative things were said about us, but we bounced back. I think it showed the character of our team. Guys stayed with it. They accepted our coaching, our criticism, and we bounced back."
Oregon's biggest boost Saturday came from its bench. Backup point guard Johnathan Loyd scored a season-high 19 points on eight-of-14 shooting and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. It was a meaningful honor for Loyd, a Las Vegas native who was playing in front of numerous family members and friends.
Loyd entered the game averaging 4.5 points.
"We lost the opportunity to win one championship," Loyd said, "so we said, 'Let's go out and get another one.' That's what we did."
Reserve forward Carlos Emory had 20 points -- nearly 10 above his average -- and Arsalan Kazemi had 12 points and 12 rebounds. Shabazz Muhammad and Larry Drew II each scored 14 points for UCLA, which played without second-leading scorer Jordan Adams, who suffered a season-ending foot injury in Friday's semifinals.
"It was their last opportunity to have some tangible evidence that they helped bring our program along," Altman said. "They're just tremendous to work with."
The Ducks left the arena Saturday hoping the confidence they gained by winning the Pac-12 tournament title will help them in their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2008. Oregon has advanced past the first round just once since 2002.
No matter what happens, though, it's clear Altman has Oregon headed in a positive direction. This season's success was achieved with a backcourt that features two freshmen starters (Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis) and a handful of transfers. Kazemi didn't arrive on campus until September after transferring from Rice. Emory and Woods, a starting forward, are also transfers.
That's not an easy situation to work with, which is why Altman, the former Creighton coach, doesn't receive nearly enough credit for the job he's done with this squad.
He said he hopes what happened Saturday will be the spark to bigger and better things for the program -- not just this season, but for the future.
"It was really good for our guys to experience what they experienced today," said Altman, referencing the net-cutting ceremony and on-court celebration. "They'll know what they're working for now. It'll definitely make a difference."
Oregon had a disappointing end to the Pac-12 regular season, but the Ducks have rebounded in style. They beat UCLA on Saturday for the Pac-12 tourney title.