LAS VEGAS -- Just before getting out of his seat at the postgame news conference, Oregon coach Dana Altman took a look at the box score and smiled. Then he pointed to Johnathan Loyd, who also broke out in a grin.
It was the 15-of-19 performance at the charity stripe for the Ducks, and Loyd's perfect 8-for-8 outing from the foul line. It followed an 18-for-24 performance at the line one night earlier in a win against Washington.
Altman was worried. His players had fumbled away opportunities one week earlier on the road against both Colorado and Utah with poor showings at the line. He was concerned whether this team, one that mixes youth and veterans who had never been in a league race before, were wilting under the pressure.
"This was important tonight," Altman said after Oregon's 64-45 win over Utah that put the Ducks in Saturday night's Pac-12 title game.
His team handled the pressure -- and has also regained its mojo, which disappeared during the second half of the league slate after freshman Dominic Artis went down with a foot injury that cost him about two months.
"We were playing great," Altman said. "We were 17-2 and in the top 10."
Opponents played Oregon differently without Artis, though. The freshman had, after coming out of the gates slow, begun to play extremely well. He was moving the ball, finding the balance between scoring and distributing and, most importantly, he was taking care and valuing the ball. Loyd was forced to play major minutes, and teams sagged off. The offense suffered. Want proof? The Ducks scored 52 in a loss at Stanford and managed just 54 on the road at Cal.
"We couldn't get the ball moving," Altman said.
Oregon was 5-4 without Artis, and the country began to talk about the difference the freshman made for Altman's club. His return to the team would change everything, get the Ducks back to the dangerous club that they were for the months of November, December and most of January. However, Artis didn't return the same player. Well, he returned as the player who began his college career -- erratic and forcing poor shots. It's taking time, but Artis has made strides and scored a couple of key buckets in the win over Utah.
"It's really difficult for anyone to miss two months, especially a freshman," Altman said. "He'll help us in the tournament, but he hasn't been the same factor he was for us before he got injured."
Oregon will face a Jordan Adams-less UCLA team on Saturday night in the championship game. When informed that Adams had broken his foot earlier in the night and wouldn't be available, the Ducks were surprised. But for this team right now, a win is a win. Whether it comes against Utah or a Bruins team without one of its top players.