Expecting N.C.A.A. Miracles, the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles Make a Run
INDIANAPOLIS — This is the point, the second weekend of the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament, when the side door is opened and uninvited guests are unceremoniously ushered out. So the time is nigh to introduce the Oral Roberts basketball team.
Now or never, right?
It’s a nice little story: The best player has as little trouble scoring (he leads the nation) as he does in the science lab (he’s an A student in biomedical chemistry). The next-best player is the son of a Dutch bishop and a pastor who meditates in big moments. The Latvian forward arrived from a music school, where he pounded the drums more than the boards. A reserve guard is the brother-in-law of an assistant coach.
The coach is fiery and frequently uses religious references, but even his faith has limits. He packed enough clean clothes to last only through last Sunday.
We could go on, but by then the Golden Eagles may be headed home. (That would be to Tulsa, Okla., where the late evangelist for whom the university is named built the school.)
Oral Roberts plays Arkansas, the third seed in the South region on Saturday night, which will be another chance to show the team does not belong in the tournament known as the Big Dance. (Another clue: students at Footloose U. are banned from dancing. Also verboten is “homosexual behavior,” premarital sex and occult practices.) The Golden Eagles upset second-seeded Ohio State, then knocked off No. 7 Florida. Only one other No. 15 seed has ever reached the round of 16, and none have ever gotten as far as a regional final.
The Golden Eagles seem to have internalized the message that is stamped on their home court: Expect a miracle.
“We have the mentality that we’re not done yet,” said DeShang Weaver, a sophomore guard who is the sixth man and goes by D.J. He missed his first six 3-pointers in this tournament before burying the one that mattered most: a shot from the left corner that put Oral Roberts ahead for good with 2:09 left against Florida.
Weaver’s shot was not the only prayer that has been answered. Kevin Obanor tipped in a missed shot at the buzzer to win a Summit League semifinal, and the Golden Eagles blew a 25-point halftime lead in the championship game before recovering to clinch their tournament berth when Francis Lacis — the Latvian drummer whose girlfriend, Anna Dreimane, is on the Texas A&M women’s basketball team — blocked a last-second shot at the rim.
Most of the heavy lifting has been done by Obanor, a forward and progeny of clergy, and Max Abmas, the nation’s leading scorer and chemistry whiz who answers to Midcourt Max, which describes his shooting range. They've been an indefatigable pick-and-roll machine, with Obanor tallying 58 points and 22 rebounds in the two games, while Abmas has added 55 points and 10 assists — including the one to Weaver.
They haven’t been off the court yet, either — each played 45 minutes in the overtime win over Ohio State and all 40 minutes in the victory over Florida.
“It’s really just mind blowing,” Obanor said after the win last Sunday.
A more stupefying story of Oral Roberts basketball dates back to the last time the team won a tournament game, in 1974, when they were on the brink of the Final Four.
After a Midwest regional semifinal win over Louisville on their own court in Tulsa, Ken Trickey, the coach of the Titans — as they were known then — was given a ticket for drunken driving. Trickey tendered his resignation since drinking alcohol violated the school’s behavior and conduct regulations, as it still does.
Roberts, the president of the university, wouldn’t have it. The next day Trickey was back on the sidelines as the Titans nearly upset Kansas, losing in overtime to the Jayhawks.
After the game Trickey resigned — and Roberts accepted.
It was a time of great ambition for Roberts. Surrounded by football powers like Oklahoma and Arkansas, and even Oklahoma State and Tulsa, Roberts saw basketball as the vehicle for spreading the gospel. So while the football schools played basketball in rickety gyms, he built the $11 million Mabee Center, which opened in 1972 and cost twice what was estimated. The team Trickey put together raced up down the floor and twice led the nation in scoring.
“It was a palace,” said Clay Henry, who covered college basketball for the Tulsa World in the ’70s and ’80s. “It looked like something out of the Jetsons — all gold and futuristic.”
He added: “President Roberts made a decision that with all these great football schools around here, we’re going to bring attention to our school and we’re going to get it through basketball. And he almost did.”
Then the school cycled through coaches, was banned from the tournament for recruiting violations and — with N.C.A.A. investigators looking into players being given plane tickets, the use of coaches’ cars and charging close to $50,000 on telephone calls — Oral Roberts bolted for the N.A.I.A. for two years in 1989.
The university was in similar dire straits.
In 1987, Roberts bunkered for 10 days in the campus prayer tower — a 200-foot tall monolith — and proclaimed that unless his followers anted up $8 million by April 1, God was going to “call me home.” The stunt worked.
Now, the university’s finances are more stable and ambitions more modest. Its coach, Paul Mills, who was a longtime assistant at Baylor, said he borrowed a roster building philosophy from the New Zealand All-Blacks rugby team, that good people make good players. It also helps if they are good shooters, and the Titans turned Golden Eagles are historically good free-throw shooters — their 82.19 percent free throw shooting is a sliver ahead of the record set by Harvard in 1984.
Oral Roberts also played a challenging nonconference schedule, playing Missouri, Wichita State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Arkansas — who they will get another crack at on Saturday — losing them all. Now, though, there will be unusual attention on the group.
Bigger schools might have been interested in Weaver if he hadn’t torn up his knee in high school. Abmas was recruited only by the service academies. Obanor drew interest but not a scholarship from Arkansas. And another starter, Kareem Thompson, had no scholarship offers in high school.
“I’m joyous,” said Weaver, who has a 6-foot-11 wingspan and wants to become a venture capitalist. “There’s a sense of familiarity we have being in this position. We created this. We didn’t just jump on a bandwagon, so it’s priceless.”
Even if nobody else gives them a prayer.
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