INDIANAPOLIS – In a COVID world, celebrations are rare. They are mostly absent, disappearing into the abyss of pandemic-related restrictions and precautions that, while understandable and necessary, are frustratingly oppressive.
America is a social place, perhaps 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, it has not been us. In many ways, it couldn’t be us. We sacrifice fun for lives, with good reason. We have put aside our privileged social experiences for the sake of our neighbors (although, let’s be honest, we didn’t do it well enough).
But for a brief moment Sunday night, hidden inside Indiana’s Farmers Coliseum, we were back with us. We return to madness, to celebration, to joy.
Of all the teams, in all the schools, to get us there, it was Oral Roberts, a small strictly religious institution in Oklahoma. Two days after defeating Ohio State, the Golden Eagles defeated Florida here on Sunday, 81-78, to become the second No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16.
The victory sparked a party inside the cozy Farmers Coliseum, as more than 200 Oral Roberts fans avoided distancing themselves and some of them masked mandates to celebrate a historic event. They turned Section 102 into quite a party, cheek to cheek and shoulder to shoulder, they continued until security guards pulled them out of the arena.
“You will have to excuse us,” Oral Roberts President William Wilson politely told a member of security. “We don’t get to Sweet 16 every year!”
The Golden Eagles (18-10) overcame multiple 10- and 11-point deficits in the second half with a roaring final five minutes, coming back to stun the SEC Gators (15-10), seeded No. 7 (15 -10). His two sharpest weapons, point guard Max Abmas, the nation’s leading scorer, and forward Kevin Obanor, combined for 54 points and six 3-pointers.
Oral Roberts scored 14 of the game’s final 20 points, turning Florida’s sloppy turnovers into buckets and sizzling from long range. In the Sweet 16 they go, ready for a showdown with their own neighbor and a team they played earlier this season: Arkansas.
“We are not finished yet,” Obanor said afterward. “We still have unfinished business.”
The Gators had two equalizing chances as time ran out of the clock, but the Eagles snatched the victory out of what looked like a certain loss, causing a massive roar from their side of the arena.
Players hit the court and fans headed from the upper seats to the lower bowl, piling into Section 102. Four security officers prevented the group from leaking closer to the court and exploding the proverbial bubble they find themselves in. all NCAA teams during their stay in Indianapolis.
For more than 30 minutes, the crowd of fans swayed, chanted, and screamed. Right in the middle of it all was Wilson, in his ninth year as school president. Almost in tears and wiping her sweaty forehead, she spoke about the impact that career will have on her school of 4,300 students in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“Ohio State’s victory was perhaps the largest public relations event in our history, and it will only get bigger,” he says. “We can’t wait to represent God and Oral Roberts in Sweet 16. We believe in God, the Gospel and Jesus Christ.”
Oral Roberts is a private evangelical university, with a strict student honor code that prohibits activities such as lying, cursing, smoking, drinking, and a variety of sexual acts including homosexual behavior and sex outside of marriage. Before 2009, male students at the school could not grow beards and were restricted to a certain length of hair.
School leaders use their religious beliefs outwardly. In fact, Oral Roberts coach Paul Mills opened his post-game press conference by quoting a gospel hymn.
“I’m glad the school gets attention,” says Mills. “It is good that sports provide this platform.”
And what a giant, brilliantly lit stage it is, especially for a team few even noticed before their back-to-back three-point wins here. Earlier this season, Oral Roberts lost to Missouri by 27 points and Oklahoma by 14. The Eagles won their last two games of the conference tournament by a total of four points, coming here by the narrowest margin. They have losses on their schedule to teams called South Dakota and Kansas City (not the Chiefs), and they finished fourth in their own conference, the Summit League.
They’re the most authentic form of Cinderella this event has seen since their fellow 15-seeded Florida Gulf Coast fliers arrived at Sweet 16 in 2013.
“It means everything to this school,” says athletic director Mike Carter, among the crowd of fans. “Raise the profile of ORU. It gives us a visibility that we would not otherwise have or could not obtain. It’s the biggest thing that has happened to us since 1974. “
That year, the Eagles won their last and only NCAA tournament. And now, almost half a century later, they are literally dancing on Sweet 16. For a brief moment Saturday night, Oral Roberts, of all fan bases, did something they are not even allowed to do on their own. campus: They were partying.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.