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'Expect a miracle' — Oral Roberts owns piece of NCAA history with incredible Sweet 16 run

Pete Thamel
·5-min read

The oversized praying hands have long been the landmark of the Oral Roberts campus in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They are made of bronze, loom 60 feet high and weigh 30 tons. They are known as the World’s Largest Praying Hands, long an attraction for cross-country travelers and those who delight in obscure Americana.

Well, the private Christian school now has another indelible identifier. With a victory over No. 7 Florida in the NCAA men's tournament on Sunday, Oral Roberts became just the second No. 15 seed to ever advance to the Sweet 16.

Led by the dynamic duo of junior forward Kevin Obanor and sophomore guard Max Abmas, Oral Roberts stunned the college basketball establishment for the second straight game. On Friday, the Golden Eagles stunned No. 2 seed Ohio State to become the ninth team in NCAA history to pull a No. 15 vs. No. 2 upset.

The private school was founded by televangelist Oral Roberts, who wrote an apt memoir on his life and ministry: “Expect a Miracle.”

On Sunday, one arrived. ORU joined Florida Gulf Coast in NCAA lore. Back in 2013, the team remembered as Dunk City swashbuckled its way to victories over Georgetown and San Diego State. It threw lobs in clutch situations and played with a swagger that made it America’s toast. Oral Roberts, which hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1974, erased a double-digit second-half deficit Sunday to outlast the Gators, 81-78.

“It’s really just mind blowing,” Obanor said.

Max Abmas, Kevin Obanor and Kareem Thompson of Oral Roberts celebrate after defeating Florida on March 21. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Max Abmas, Kevin Obanor and Kareem Thompson of Oral Roberts celebrate after defeating Florida on Sunday. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

What’s been remarkable about Oral Roberts is the unremarkable way that it has gutted out two wins and went about its business. In his opening statement after the win, coach Paul Mills praised God and looked forward to having clean underwear.

“For me, I’m glad that we get a chance to do laundry,” he said. “Tomorrow will be a good day because I have run out of clothes.”

Oral Roberts defeated Ohio State on Friday by hitting shots, sagging its defense and manipulating the pressure of human nature to force the Buckeyes to go cold and win in overtime.

Against Florida on Sunday, the Gators led by as many as 11 midway through the second half. Oral Roberts didn’t flinch, as it hit five straight field goals in a three-minute stretch starting at the 5:02 mark of the second half. None of those was bigger than a 3-pointer by DeShang Weaver, who was 0-for-5 from the field prior to burying a 3-pointer to give ORU the lead for good, 80-78, with 2:09 remaining.

“You’re going to have a chance to win it,” Mills recalled telling Weaver in the timeout before the shot. “I need you to knock down this three.”

Obanor, a 6-foot-8 junior from Houston, finished the game with 28 points and 11 rebounds. Abmas, the nation’s leading scorer, chipped in 26. They’ve operated this past week with some classic underdog narratives — ignoring seeding, blocking out praise and focusing on the upcoming opponent. “We don’t let our people put a number by our school,” Obanor said. “That’s not what gritty people do.”

After the Ohio State upset, Mills gave the team the bus ride back to the hotel to look at their phones and celebrate the win. He promised them that as good as the win felt in the first round, the Sweet 16 would feel even better. He was pleased with the way they locked in on Florida. When he entered the locker room Sunday night, he had a message: “I told you so!”

No. 3 Arkansas looms next for Oral Roberts, which is a regional game because Fayetteville is just two hours from Tulsa. The two programs played each other earlier this season, with Arkansas coming back to win 87-76 in Fayetteville. Oral Roberts actually led by 12 points in that game, and Abmas hit just 4-of-11 shot from the field.

There’s nothing supremely unique about what Oral Roberts is doing. There’s not a new-age scheme or a magic transfer factory. It is a well-coached team — Mills came from Scott Drew’s staff at Baylor — of under-recruited over-achievers who are playing at a high level. The Golden Eagles are a paradigm of what modern basketball looks like. They play with five shooters, spread the floor and run a crisp offense. Against Florida, they didn’t even shoot that well, hitting 10-for-30 from 3.

Mills pulled off the craftiest coaching move of the tournament by intentionally fouling Florida’s Osayi Osifo to steal a possession in the final minutes. Mills admitted after that he knew Osifo was just a 50% free-throw shooter and ORU was struggling to get stops. Osifo obliged by missing the front end of a one-and-one with 3:11 left. Fifteen seconds later, Obanor gave ORU the lead and shifted the momentum.

After the game, Mills said he hadn’t thought about the history Oral Roberts was making. Entering the NCAAs, he had no idea the school hadn’t won a game since 1974. While ORU’s outfit is a bit more low-key than the Dunk City outfit from Florida Gulf Coast in 2013, the team has met the moment with equal aplomb.

“We play hard, play gritty and play grimy and live with the results,” Obanor said. “And whatever happens, happens.”

What’s certain to happen is unprecedented attention. Florida Gulf Coast athletic director Ken Kavanaugh predicted “lots more well-earned attention.” He told Yahoo Sports about what ORU will experience: “Should be extremely enjoyable. I hope they exceed our now shared platform.”

For Oral Roberts, most of its national basketball fame has revolved around Bill Self once being its coach. Either former NBA player Mark Acres or Haywoode Workman is the most well-known player in school history.

After a stunning weekend in Indianapolis, Florida Gulf Coast’s unprecedented achievement now has company. Oral Roberts is living by its founders’ mantra — miracles have become the expectation. “We’re not capitulating to anyone here,” Mills said.

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