Oral Roberts Lights Up March Madness With Stunning Upset of Ohio State

Just hours into the start of the men's first round, Max Abmas, Kevin Obanor and the Golden Eagles put the magic in March.
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Upon their arrival to campus each fall, Oral Roberts head coach Paul Mills makes all his players make 20,000 shots. He gives them six weeks to do it.

This season, Kevin Obanor completed the challenge in six days.

For Ohio State on Friday, it might have felt like Obanor and teammate Max Abmas made 20,000 in two hours. ORU’s dynamic duo combined to pour in 59 points and lead the Golden Eagles to a stunning 75–72 first-round upset over the No. 2 seed Buckeyes.

It was a moment only March Madness could provide: A pair of underrecruited, slightly undersized stars leading an Oklahoma private school of just over 4,000 students past one of the largest brands in college sports. An Ohio State team that less than a week before played in overtime of the Big Ten tournament and owned legitimate Final Four aspirations is headed home without making a peep in the Big Dance.

Oral Roberts celebrates an upset of No. 2 seed Ohio State

Abmas announced in the opening minutes of the game that the Golden Eagles would make it interesting, knocking down an impossibly deep three that rekindled feelings of deep March runs of old by the likes of Stephen Curry and Jimmer Fredette. That early shot set the tone for the game—every time the Buckeyes made a push, Oral Roberts had an answer.

And while the Buckeyes quickly found success dominating the glass with their superior size, ORU turned its lack of size into a strength by embracing its shooting and versatility. Half of Oral Roberts’s shots were from downtown, not an unexpected mark considering the Golden Eagles rank No. 6 nationally in three-point attempts per game.

Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann noted postgame how challenging it was for star big man E.J. Liddell to be constantly dragged out onto the perimeter by Obanor, a generously-measured 6’ 8” forward who drained five threes in the contest. And while Liddell led the Buckeyes with 23 points and 14 rebounds, he seemed to wear down in the closing minutes and turned it over five times in the game.

Perhaps Liddell tired, but Abmas and Obanor didn’t. Each played all 45 minutes and kept making plays all game, with Obanor knocking down four key free throws in the final 1:07 of regulation to tie the game. In all, the junior scored nine straight points across regulation and overtime, rallying the Golden Eagles back from four down to take a five-point lead they would not relinquish in the overtime session. And while star guard Duane Washington Jr. got a great look from three to tie it, the ball caromed off the iron as the buzzer sounded to send shockwaves through brackets across America.

“We took it for granted, thinking we could just come in here and win a game,” Ohio State senior point guard CJ Walker said. “In March, you can’t do that.”

No, you most certainly can not.

Still, it was easy to understand why the Buckeyes, fresh off wins over Purdue and Michigan last week, weren’t expected to struggle. Oral Roberts didn’t beat a single Division I team in the nonconference. It entered the final week of February at 11–10, fighting for a top-four seed in the Summit League tournament. A summary of potential mid-majors to watch written on March 1 definitely wouldn’t have included Oral Roberts, Max Abmas or Kevin Obanor, even if Abmas had begun earning headlines for passing Iowa star Luka Garza as the nation’s leading scorer.

Yet here are the Golden Eagles, the early darlings of March and a reminder of what makes this tournament so one-of-a-kind after its absence last year. And after 15 minutes or so of celebrating, Mills and ORU seemed ready to move on to the next challenge, a date with No. 7 seed Florida for a spot in the Sweet 16.

Paul Mills, coach of Oral Roberts

“I’ve been to four Sweet 16s,” Mills says, referencing his time on staff at Baylor. “That’s a better feeling.“

When the ball is tipped against the Gators, Abmas and Obanor will be household names in this tournament. With a win, they’d become just the second No. 15 to reach the Sweet 16, joining the ‘Dunk City’ Florida Gulf Coast team from 2013. Mills’s advice for his team? Put the phones away until Monday.

“That stuff doesn’t need to be tended to right now unless it’s your mom, your dad or your girlfriend,” Mills says. “You probably need to answer that one.”

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