INDIANAPOLIS -- In a COVID world, celebrations are rare. They are mostly absent, disappearing in the abyss of pandemic-related restrictions and precautions that, while understandable and necessary, are frustratingly oppressive.
America is a social place, maybe the most social place on Earth. We party and dance. We sing and shout. We hug and kiss. We celebrate like no other.
For so many days, weeks and months, we haven’t been us. In many ways, we couldn’t be us. We sacrificed fun for lives, rightfully so. We’ve put aside our privileged social experiences for the good of our neighbors (even though, let’s be honest, we didn’t do it near well enough).
But for a brief moment on Sunday night, tucked inside Indiana’s Farmers Coliseum, we were back to us. We were back to Madness, to celebration, to joy.
Of all the teams, at all the schools, to get us there, it was Oral Roberts, a tiny, strictly religious institution out of Oklahoma. Two days after upsetting Ohio State, the Golden Eagles took down Florida here on Sunday, 81-78, to become just the second No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16.
The victory set off a party inside cozy Farmers Coliseum, as more than 200 Oral Roberts fans eschewed distancing and, some of them, mask mandates to celebrate a historic event. They turned Section 102 into quite the party, cheek to cheek and shoulder to shoulder, they carried on until being ushered from the arena by security.
“You’ll have to excuse us,” Oral Roberts president William Wilson politely told a security member. “We don’t get to the Sweet 16 every year!”
The Golden Eagles (18–10) overcame multiple 10- and 11-point second-half deficits with a roaring final five minutes, clawing back to stun the No. 7-seeded Gators (15–10) from the SEC. Their two sharpest weapons, guard Max Abmas, the nation’s scoring leader, and rangy forward Kevin Obanor, combined for 54 points and six three-pointers.
Oral Roberts scored 14 of the game’s final 20 points, turning Florida’s careless turnovers into buckets and sizzling from long range. Into the Sweet 16 they go, poised for a matchup with their own neighbor and a team they played earlier this season: Arkansas.
“We’re not done yet,” Obanor said afterward. “We still got unfinished business.”
The Gators had two chances to tie as time slipped off the clock, but the Eagles snatched victory from what seemed like certain defeat, eliciting a massive roar from their side of the arena.
Players poured onto the court, and fans funneled from the upper seats to the lower bowl, piling up in Section 102. Four security officers kept the group from filtering closer to the court and popping the proverbial bubble that all NCAA teams find themselves in during their stay in Indianapolis.
For more than 30 minutes, the fan mob swayed, chanted and screamed. Right in the middle of it all was Wilson, in his ninth year as the school’s president. Through near tears and dabbing his sweaty forehead, he spoke about the impact that such a run will have on his 4,300-student school in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“The Ohio State win was maybe the biggest PR event in our history, and it’s only going to get bigger,” he says. “We can’t wait to represent God and Oral Roberts in the Sweet 16. We believe in God, the Gospel and Jesus Christ.”
Oral Roberts is a private evangelical university, with a stringent student honor code prohibiting activities such as lying, cursing, smoking, drinking and a range of sexual acts that include homosexual behavior and sex outside of marriage. Before 2009, male students at the school could not grow beards and were restricted to a certain hair length.
School leaders outwardly wear their religious beliefs. In fact, Oral Roberts coach Paul Mills opened his postgame news conference citing a Gospel hymn.
“I’m glad the school is going to get attention,” says Mills. “It’s good that sports provides this platform.”
And what a giant, brightly lit stage it is, especially for a team that few even noticed before their consecutive three-point wins here. Earlier this season, Oral Roberts lost to Missouri by 27 points and Oklahoma by 14. The Eagles won their final two conference tournament games by a combined four points, getting here by the slimmest of margins. They have losses on their schedule to teams named South Dakota and Kansas City (not the Chiefs), and they finished fourth in their own conference, the Summit League.
They are the truest form of a Cinderella that this event has seen since fellow 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast’s run to the Sweet 16 in 2013.
“It means everything to this school,” says athletic director Mike Carter, down among the fan mob. “It raises the profile of ORU. It gives us visibility that we don’t otherwise have or are unable to get. It’s the biggest thing that has happened to us since 1974.”
That year, the Eagles won their last and only NCAA tournament game. And now, nearly a half-century later, they’re quite literally dancing into the Sweet 16. For a brief moment on Saturday night, Oral Roberts, of all fan bases, did something that they are not allowed to even do on their own campus: They partied.
SI’s tournament newsletter analyzes everything you need to know about the Big Dance: what just happened and what’s happening next. Sign up for Morning Madness here.
More March Madness coverage: