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Oral history: Golden Eagles become ninth No. 15 seed ever to win first-round game

Pete Thamel
·5-min read

Entering Friday, teams ranked No. 15 in the NCAA tournament held an 8-132 record in first-round games. The upsets are threaded through tournament lore, from Richmond stunning Syracuse in 1991 to Lehigh upsetting Duke in 2012 to the magical Dunk City run of Florida Gulf Coast after it soared past Georgetown in 2013.

The allure of the No. 15 upset is that it’s rare but still attainable, a more realistic version than the moonshot No. 16 over No. 1, which has happened only once.

As the NCAA men's tournament returned this week with a blunt-force reintroduction of the event’s eternal charm, No. 15 Oral Roberts offered the most resounding reminder. The Golden Eagles outlasted No. 2 Ohio State in overtime, 75-72, to deliver the 2021 tournament’s first signature moment. They will forever be team No. 9 to pull a first-round upset over a No. 2 seed.

Oral Roberts is a private Christian school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and its most famous campus landmark is a set of praying hands that the school claims to be the biggest in the world. Perhaps they helped deliver what will be remembered as one of the NCAA tournament’s hallmark prayers, as ORU entered the game 15.5-point underdogs and Ohio State had spent much of the season dueling for the league title in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten.

Oral Roberts raced past Ohio State behind the nation’s leading scorer, Max Abmas, a 6-foot-1 guard who finished with 29 points and made sure that America will master the tricky pronunciation of his name — ACE-MISS. Teammate Kevin Obanor, a 6-foot-8 forward, finished with a game-high 30 points, including seven in overtime and the pair of free throws in the waning seconds that clinched the game.

“We just had the mindset of, ‘Show us that you deserve to be No. 2,’ and we came out with a lot of confidence,” Obanor said.

Oral Roberts players celebrate after beating Ohio State in a first-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, Friday, March 19, 2021, at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)
Oral Roberts players celebrate after beating Ohio State in a first-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, Friday, March 19, 2021, at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

And the central figures in this game can look back and expect their lives to change. Just take a peek into the history of the winning No. 15 seeds, which provided both seminal moments and pivot points in their lives.

Steve Nash was a mostly unknown Canadian guard before scoring 10 points in Santa Clara’s upset of Arizona in 1993. CJ McCollum was a well-regarded mid-major guard who transformed into a first-round pick after scoring 30 in Lehigh’s upset of Duke. Kyle O’Quinn scored 26 in Norfolk’s upset of Missouri in 2012, the year that No. 15 lightning struck twice, and he has cobbled together a productive eight-year NBA career.

Recently, the coaches in these upsets have flashed consistent upward mobility. Andy Enfield rode Dunk City’s moment to the USC job. Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis eventually catapulted from Middle Tennessee thanks to beating Michigan State in 2016 and toppling Minnesota in the first round the following year.

“What resonates is how important the impact is for your university and fan base,” Davis told Yahoo Sports on Friday, noting that MTSU just celebrated the five-year anniversary of the Izzo upset. “Being the greatest win of any kind at your school, it just brings such a sense of pride to everyone.”

Oral Roberts coach Paul Mills delivered that sense of pride by making sure his team was prepared for the moment. He said when players get to campus at ORU, they’re asked to make 20,000 shots. Mills gives the players six weeks to complete the task. Obanor completed his in six days.

“When you have guys that are willing to put in the work and be thankful for the people that are helping them, they’re going to be good at shooting the basketball,” Mills said.

ORU played a delightful offense — hard cuts, great spacing and fearlessness that comes with taking so many shots. They finished the game just 11 for 35 from 3-point range, but managed to hit 14 of 18 from the free throw line. Ohio State hit just 5 for 23 from 3-point range.

Ohio State sputtered on offense and fell victim to guard Duane Washington Jr. devolving into hero ball in the second half. He went 3 of 13 after halftime and 1 of 5 from the field in overtime, also missing a pair of crucial free throws. “This is obviously a really, really bitter end to a terrific season,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “We’ll own that and accept it and we’ll move forward.”

Oral Roberts didn’t just enter the NCAA tournament a big underdog. It was just the No. 4 seed in the Summit League tournament, needing upsets of No. 1 South Dakota State and No. 3 North Dakota State to get to the NCAAs.

Once there, the Golden Eagles seized the moment. Mills is a fan of the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team and said his team epitomized one of that group’s core tenets. “Good people make good players,” Mills said. “We have really good people.”

Those good people will move on, with opportunity looming against No. 7 Florida on Sunday. Regardless of how far it goes, Oral Roberts has already resuscitated the collective adrenaline that comes with a seismic NCAA upset. And before happy hour even arrived on the tournament’s first full day, a school you may have never heard of made sure it'll be remembered for a long time.

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