‘My emotions were through the roof.’ Oral Roberts’ men’s NCAA Tournament run energizes small Tulsa school

TULSA — Right inside the student bookstore’s doors, a table stood nearly bare. 

A mannequin was on the left, sporting a "Breaking Hearts and Brackets" shirt. Yet only a couple were left on the display. A similar table to the right sat empty. 

Oral Roberts’ university bookstore has sold about 1,000 March Madness shirts the past week. Another shipment was coming Friday, but those weren’t expected to last long, either. 

“Everybody is just so excited to see the team do so well and overcome so much,” said Debbie Haymaker, Oral Roberts’ bookstore manager.

As the 15th-seeded Oral Roberts men’s basketball team prepares to face Arkansas in the Sweet 16 on Saturday in Indianapolis, the small school in south Tulsa has risen into the national spotlight.

With a little more than 4,000 students, Oral Roberts’ campus sits on a hill tucked behind the Mabee Center, where the basketball team plays. Yet the Golden Eagles are the talk of the Big Dance and the sports world, a Cinderella squad that has drawn global attention after becoming only the second 15 seed in tournament history to advance to the Sweet 16. 

Sweet Sixteen related merchandise is advertised in the window of a bookstore at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa on Thursday. After the men's basketball team's run to the Sweet Sixteen merchandise was selling fast. (Photo: BRYAN TERRY/THE OKLAHOMAN)

The Golden Eagles pulled off the upset of the tournament in the first round, beating second-seeded Ohio State in overtime. Then in the Round of 32, Oral Roberts came from behind to beat No. 7 seed Florida, advancing to the Sweet 16 for the second time in school history. 

The bookstore received a shipment of 300 Sweet 16 shirts Thursday morning, but they were sold out by the afternoon. Even Wendy Scott-Mills, wife of coach Paul Mills, was in the bookstore looking at merchandise Thursday. 

Bobby Baehr, the executive director of the Golden Eagle Club, said the national reaction has been incredible to see. Even on a local scale, there has been a different vibe on and around campus this week. 

“There’s a lot of people that are new supporters, whether they’re a grad from the '80s or '90s or they’re just a big fan that had been watching games on TV, but now is a time that they really want to jump in and get involved,” Baehr said. “It’s been great to see the amount of support we’ve been getting over the last couple days.”

Oral Roberts' admissions interest

Another aspect that has been impacted because of Oral Roberts’ run is admissions. 

Ana Reed works in the admissions office, and she said this week has been a bit busier than normal. She said there have been numerous new applications from around the world while those who previously applied have been checking on their admission status. 

“It’s a great talking piece on the phone, like ‘Hey, are you following along with ORU? We’re in the Sweet 16,’” Reed said. “It has been fun.”

For Connor Dilley, a junior student assistant in the athletic department who grew up an Oral Roberts basketball fan, this magical run has been indescribable. 

Dilley’s room was Oral Roberts’ themed growing up, so there wasn’t much of a choice when he was deciding where he wanted to go to school. His family had season tickets. He was at the first two NCAA Tournament games in Indiana and will be in attendance Saturday. 

“Seeing them beat Ohio State, it was like something out of a movie, the David and Goliath story,” Dilley said. “My emotions were through the roof. We were so excited that ORU basketball was back on the map.”

For those who couldn’t make it to Indiana, Oral Roberts hosted watch parties back on campus. 

Upsets of Ohio State, Florida 

During Sunday’s matchup against Florida, throngs of students gathered on the Mabee Center’s floor and watched the game on the big screen. A video of the celebration went viral and caught the attention of Mills and the team. 

“You temporarily lose your mind when you’re ecstatic and enthusiastic about something,” Mills said. “To be a part of adding to people’s enthusiasm, for our players, it’s pretty cool.”

One of the students at the Mabee Center was Jilissa Gary, a member of the school's cheer team. 

She has followed the team throughout the season but truly got attached during the Summit League championship run. The school hosted a welcome back party when the team returned from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Gary said that’s when interest piqued around campus for the basketball program. 

“(Students) were like, ‘OK, what’s the Big Dance? What does this mean? How can I cheer my boys on?” Gary said. “People started to find out how the tournament worked, and they were like, ‘All right, let’s go.’”

A view of the Prayer Tower on the campus of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa. (Photo: BRYAN TERRY/THE OKLAHOMAN)

Prominent sports figures from across the country have voiced support for the Golden Eagles’ run. Florida Gulf Coast in 2013 is the only other 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16, so fans of the underdog have rallied behind Oral Roberts.

Yet for players themselves, including sophomore guard Max Abmas who leads the country in scoring, a championship remains the ultimate goal. 

“It has been real crazy,” Abmas said. “It’s a whole lot of outside noise that you can get caught up into. For us in the locker room, it’s easy for us to get distracted in that, but it’s important that we just block that out and focus on us 15 guys in the locker room and trying to win more basketball games.”

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