WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — When Oral Roberts arrived in Indianapolis for the NCAA tournament, the Golden Eagles felt there was little significance in being a No. 15 seed. They were aware they would be looked at as an underdog, but the Summit League victors wouldn’t let a number determine their approach against No. 2 Ohio State. That mentality paved the way for the Golden Eagles’ 75-72 overtime win over the Buckeyes on Friday afternoon, an upset that was predicted by few, but fueled by one in head coach Paul Mills.
“I thought we would win, our guys thought we would win,” Mills said.
Mills knew they were going to win the game. It would be difficult to convince him otherwise. He had confidence in his players, especially in star guard Max Abmas and forward Kevin Obanor. Both played pivotal roles in the outcome. Abmas couldn’t be stopped in the first half, scorching the Ohio State defense with 18 points on 5-of-7 shooting from deep.
As Ohio State’s defense keyed in on Abmas, Obanor stepped up. He scored an impressive 20 points in the second half and overtime combined while going 7-for-7 from the free-throw line, including two with 14.9 seconds left, tying the game at 64 and sending the game into overtime.
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In seeing Obanor make clutch free throws, Mills alluded to his early season work ethic as a source.
“When our players get to campus, we ask them to make 20,000 shots and they got a six-week period to do it,” Mills said. “Kevin Obanor did it in six days. Going 7-for-7 from the free throw line kind of speaks to his level of work ethic.”
Mills enjoys the other traits which Obanor and Abmas share.
“If your best players are your hardest workers, you have a chance,” Mills said. “If you’re around guys who have humility and have a work ethic…that’s usually the two components that translate to being a really good player.”
Oral Roberts (17-10) will meet Florida in the second round of the South region. The Golden Eagles last won an NCAA tournament game in 1974, a year in which they advanced to the Elite Eight, eventually losing 93-90 to Kansas in overtime. The 1974 tournament included just 25 teams and was the first considered to be the Division I Championship. Their only two wins in tournament history came during that run. But Mills doesn’t think much about the history.
“From a historical perspective, it’s great,” Mills said. “But again, nobody thinks about that stuff. Not at this moment, it’s how do we win this game.”
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The Golden Eagles asserted themselves right from the opening tip, getting out to a 7-0 run, one which was stamped by a 24-foot 3-point jumper by Abmas. Despite the quick defecit, the Buckeyes came roaring back with a 10-0 run of their own. Yet the Golden Eagles were calm. Abmas responded with 3-pointer to tie it at 10, and the two engaged in a tooth-and-nail battle until the end of the first half, which found Oral Roberts up 36-33.
One expected advantage the Buckeyes would have over Oral Roberts was their presence down low, especially with star forward E.J. Liddell. There was not much of a difference in the first half as Ohio State led the rebound battle 19-18 and scored four more points in the paint (18) than Oral Roberts (14). However, by the conclusion of the game, Ohio State outrebounded the Golden Eagles 49-32, and outscored them in the paint 40-26. What the Golden Eagles did well was create turnovers, lock up Ohio State beyond the arc, and stay confident in their own offense.
“We’re top 25 in the country in not turning it over, and Ohio State is 336th in the country in causing turnovers,” Mills said. “We knew we were coming into a game where there wasn’t going to be a whole lot of pressure.”
With each punch the Buckeyes delivered in the second half, the Golden Eagles had an answer. When it seemed as though the tide was shifting when Ohio State took a 60-58 lead with 4:41 remaining, Abmas responded with a quick drive inside for a layup to tie the game. It was a constant cycle, including in overtime. As Ohio State started to creep forward towards a tie, strong defense caused multiple Buckeye misses.
“This is obviously a really bitter end to a terrific season,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtman said. “But we’ll own that, and we’ll move forward.”
For Mills and the Golden Eagles, expect their confidence to carry forward into the Round of 32.
“It’s only just a number at the end of the day,” Obanor said. “We put our shoes just as the other team puts their shoes on…We came out with a lot of confidence and are just very grateful for the opportunity to come up with the victory.”