INDIANAPOLIS — It ended the way it had to end. It ended with the ball in the hands of Oral Roberts’s diminutive wisp of a bucket machine, Max Abmas, sprinting the ball upcourt in three urgent dribbles. The most dramatic moment of this tumultuous tournament was at hand, and the last play unfolded like a dream.
Arkansas was caught in Abmas’s slip stream, chasing, having failed to deny the nation’s leading scorer possession. Up two, the Razorbacks didn’t cover the inbounds pass, hearkening back to a fateful decision by Rick Pitino in Philadelphia 29 years ago. Abmas caught the pass on the run and started down the far sideline with Arkansas guard Davonte Davis alongside but leery of fouling, while Jalen Tate trailed the play. ORU’s 165-pound sophomore had daylight.
Given 3.1 seconds to get a good look at the shot of a lifetime, his internal clock was perfect. The orange light bordering the backboard illuminated with the ball halfway to the rim, signaling the finality of the moment. If the three-pointer dropped, the Golden Eagles become the first No. 15 seed in NCAA tournament history to reach a regional final. If the shot missed, third-seeded Arkansas prevails.
Up Abmas rose from 22 feet away, an undersized and under-recruited underdog trying to join the heroes of Marches past. He’s listed at 6’1”, but might be closer to 5’11”. Other than Oral Roberts, his scholarship offers were from the service academies. There was some Ivy League interest as well, but the power programs ignored the kid from Rockwall, Texas.
The shot arched through the taut air in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Everyone inhaled sharply, waiting for the ball to get to the goal and decide this tizzy of a game. Given the charmed nature of ORU’s run, having won four straight elimination games by a total of 11 points, you had to believe this was going in. “Great selection on the shot,” said ORU coach Paul Mills.
The shot caught iron, not net. The dream ending died. An upset-ridden tournament was denied an all-time whopper. The Hogs escaped, 72–70, setting off a roaring celebration among a crowd that was overwhelmingly Arkansas fans. For the second straight game, they had endured an opponent’s missed shot in the final seconds to advance.
In the corner of the court, Abmas untucked his jersey and covered his face in despair, as his teammates rushed to console him. “We got a good look,” Abmas said. “I just didn’t hit it.”
The Oral Roberts run was over. A team seeded fourth in the Summit League tournament needed two late escapes to even reach the Big Dance, winning its semifinal over South Dakota State on a buzzer-beating tip-in and the final by three over North Dakota State after blowing a 25-point lead. Then they shocked No. 2 seed Ohio State and No. 7 Florida by three points each.
A Pentecostal school of 4,163 students became just the second No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16. Named for a televangelist, Oral Roberts received more attention than at any time since the founder and namesake said in 1980 that he was spoken to by a 900-foot Jesus. Abmas, some 894 feet shorter, played like a giant during this run, scoring 55 points against the Buckeyes and Gators and playing every minute of both games.
The other No. 15 seed to get this far was the Dunk City Florida Gulf Coast team of 2013, but those Eagles were done by halftime in their regional semifinal against Florida. These Eagles pushed Arkansas to the brink of elimination before submitting.
From the 7:14 mark of the first half until the 7:00 mark of the second, Oral Roberts led the game. Mills’s amalgam of eastern Europeans and Texans beguiled Arkansas with backdoor cuts and timely threes, and the Razorbacks settled for far too many perimeter jump shots. It wasn’t until the Hogs committed to attacking the rim and pounding the glass—over and over and over—that they took control.
Or so it appeared. Down 66–62, ORU rallied to tie at 66. The game was deadlocked again at 70 when Arkansas had what looked like the final quality possession. Tate drove into the paint and dished to Davis, whose energetic play at both ends in the second half rescued the Hogs. He took one dribble and twisted to get a short jumper over Kareem Thompson, swishing it with 3.1 remaining.
That set the stage for the final play. After two timeouts, Oral Roberts got its last shot. Asked if he thought it was going in, Mills succinctly answered, “Yes.”
The coach’s voice cracked during his postgame press conference when talking about the group he dubbed “my favorite team ever.” The 48-year-old son of a Houston-area pastor also voluntarily took the blame for the loss, citing a technical foul he received less than four minutes into the game. The two free throws Arkansas made from that T proved to be the margin of defeat.
“Losing is totally my fault,” he said, noting that he’s only received three technicals in his career. “When you get a technical and lose by two, it’s a tough pill to swallow.”
Mills said he was arguing a charging call on ORU’s Carlos Jurgens, in comparison to a no-call on a collision at the other end of the court a few moments earlier.
“I don’t curse,” Mills said. “I just said, ‘That’s the same call.’ And they said, ‘Well, you can’t yell.’ … That was it. And they gave me a technical foul.”
Big picture, of course, Oral Roberts doesn’t get anywhere near this far in the tournament—or take a 12-point lead in the second half against Arkansas—without Mills’s coaching acumen. So it’s hard to say the T cost his team the game, just as it’s impossible to blame Abmas’s miss for the loss.
The fact that this game was close enough to bemoan a play here or there is a testament to the Oral Roberts run. Inches from history, there was still glory gained in the effort.