The Golden Eagles were the story of Friday. Now, they’re pretty clearly the story of the entire tournament.
No. 15 Oral Roberts extended its magical run against No. 7 Florida with a historic 81-78 win at Indiana Farmers Coliseum. Max Ambas was ready to make sure the Golden Eagles had a chance from the jump. The country’s leading scorer put on an another electrifying performance, scoring 16 first-half points and ending the game with 26.
“I’m so happy for those guys,” head coach Paul Mills said. This is my fifth Sweet 16 experience. Four of them as an assistant, first as a head coach. I want those guys to have these experiences.”
ORU went punch for punch with Florida in the first half, as the game was distilled down to a battle between two talented point guards in Abmas and Gators’ star Tre Mann. The two teams traded leads, but a late offensive flurry by Florida allowed the Gators to enter the half with a five-point lead.
In the second half, Florida punched first once again. The Gators hit five out of their first six shots and got an offensive put-back on their lone miss. Even as Florida took a double digit lead, the Golden Eagles never wavered. ORU started to clean up the defensive glass, limiting Florida’s second chance points and excelling at the getting to the free throw line (19-23 for the game). This included a perfect 12-12 night from Abmas.
“We were getting killed on the glass,” forward Kevin Obanor said. “Our coach was telling us we had to box out more and play with more physicality. He looked us in the eyes and told us this is our game and we’ve got to win, and we just all believed in the team.”
ORU cut it down to a six-point game with less than six minutes to go. After a Florida stop, fate turned a a smiling eye toward the Golden Eagles. Obanor (28 points, 11 rebounds) found a loose ball near the basket and and converted an and=one to make it a three-point game.
For the game, Obanor carried PRU possession-by-possession carried to the monumental finish line in the final minutes. The junior forward had all the makings of a March Madness hero. He hit a contested three on the wing, followed by a Golden Eagles steal and dunk. Obanor then put the Summit League Tournament champions into the lead on a hook shot straight out of a Dr. J highlight reel.
The Eagles went on a dramatic 9-2 run to take lead with under three to play on an Obanor layup. With the pressure on the Gators sideline, they did not wilt. A Noah Locke bucket put the Gators back into the lead with 2:29 to go, but DJ Weaver — another clutch role player for ORU throughout the run — followed with a three in the corner to give the Golden Eagles a two-point lead they would not relinquish. It was a moment that Weaver’s coach knew he could convert.
“I think there was 2:44 on the clock when we had the media [timeout],” Mills said. “I said,’ D.J., you’re going to have a chance to win it or put us up, and I need to you knock down this three.’”
The Eagles found themselves in the middle of a March Madness classic. With a two-point lead with 1:16 to go they just needed their defense to hold for one stop. And the toughness of the Golden Eagles came through, as they denied a Florida put-back.
On ORU’s next possession, Obanor fought for a long defensive rebound and was able to make one of two free throws to make it a three-point game.
While Mann was hot all game, he missed the game-tying three went it mattered most. In total, ORU’s defense stepped up in the closing stanza, as Florida had one field goal in the last three minutes.
With the win, Mills and ORU cinched just their second Sweet 16 in school history, and first since 1974. It’s been a long time coming for the program, but also for this specific team, which MIlls said has been talking about this moment since November.
“You know, there’s times in practice where one of them is taking care of the ball, and I’ll ask them: Have you ever been to March Madness?” Mills said. “Do you understand you can’t make that turnover? They look at you and say no. Now they are going to have a response to come back.”
The Golden Eagles also become just the second No. 15 seed — after FGCU in 2013 — to advance to the Sweet 16. They now play Arkansas in a battle of neighbors for a spot in the Elite Eight.