Think of all that had to go exactly right for the final shot of Oral Roberts’ breathtaking NCAA Tournament to go a teeny bit wrong. Consider how brilliantly their coach, Paul Mills, had to design a play to get their star, Max Abmas, a chance to win the most important game in school history with just 3.1 seconds to transport the basketball the 94 feet between the opposing baseline and the Golden Eagles’ goal.
There was the traffic created in the center of the backcourt by Mills’ decision to have forward Francis Lacis and guard Carlos Jurgens cross the court adjacent to one another, dragging their Arkansas defenders into a jumble and creating a screen that freed Abmas, the nation’s leading scorer, to accept an inbound pass while moving laterally and turn immediately to advance the ball toward the basket. “A banana cut,” they call this in the gameday shootaround.
There was Abmas commencing his sprint upcourt, primary defender Jalen Tate trailing him because of that pick and Razorbacks freshman guard Davonte Davis keeping pace but never gaining the defensive balance necessary to challenge the advance.
Then there was Abmas, a 44-percent 3-point shooter, seizing the opening Davis had allowed, stopping his advance a couple feet behind the arc on the right wing and launching a jumper that beat the buzzer.
Yes, it caught the front of the rim and bounced long, where Razorbacks forward Justin Smith grabbed the rebound and let out a sigh that could have been felt all the way back in Fayetteville. Arkansas had prevailed, 72-70, and advanced to the NCAA South Region final against top seed Baylor. It is the Razorbacks’ first trip to the Elite Eight since 1995.
Mills said the plan was “putting the ball in Max’s hands and allowing him to make a decision. We gave him a pass option and we gave him a dribble option. To his credit, he’s super bright. He’s such a bring young man, picks up things really quickly and understood, had great court awareness, had great selection on the shot. Unfortunately, it didn’t go in.”
Asked if he thought Abmas shot would fall when it was released, Mills simply answered, “Yes.”
No, this did not become one of the spectacular moments that will be revisited every March from now to forever. Abmas will not be remembered in the pantheon of magical NCAA Tournament moments along with Christian Laettner, Tyus Edney, Bryce Drew and Kris Jenkins.
He won’t be forgotten, either.
His NCAA Tournament legacy will be more like that of Butler product Gordon Hayward, whose halfcourt heave against Duke in the 2010 championship game followed the same path down the right side, had to be launched from farther out but caught nearly the exact same spot on the rim.
“I got a good look,” Abmas told reporters. “I just didn’t hit it.
“There’s nothing I would have done different. I guess shoot it up a little bit more. When it left my hands, it felt good. It ended up coming up short. We didn’t get the job done.”
Abmas was the engine of Oral Roberts’ surge from No. 15 NCAA Tournament seed to the Sweet 16 and a game against 3-seed Arkansas, which the Golden Eagles controlled for much of the evening and nearly won. He scored 25 points as they built a 35-28 halftime lead that was extended to as much as 46-38 early in the second half.
“I think what you’re proud of is your players,” Mills said. “You’re obviously disappointed in a game, but you’re proud of your players, just how they rally and how they fight.
“I think any time you’re around a group of young men like that, you’re just sad when it ends.
“You always think that you’re capable of so much more.”
All of those heroic plays mentioned, and even this one that nearly was, developed as they did because the NCAA wisely has resisted the inane rule that allows NBA teams and women’s college basketball teams to advance the ball 50 feet merely by calling timeout in the final seconds. Oral Roberts was required to earn that final basket, and it nearly did.
There would have been no justice had Arkansas established its lead with 3.1 seconds left on a spectacular shot in the lane by Davis only to see Oral Roberts granted the opportunity to tie or win while doing half the work that had been required of the Razorbacks.
Point guard Jalen Tate, who led Arkansas with 22 points and six assists, created that game-winning opportunity by draining all but the final seconds of the game, commencing his attack on the lane with 8.1 on the clock, then dishing the ball to Davis as the defense jammed the middle. Davis was alone as he received the pass but wanted to get closer to the basket, and his dribble move allowed two defenders to constrict. That forced “Devo” to fade as he fired.
“The last play of our possession, he drove and they came in, and he kicked it out to me. I stayed composed, and I knocked the shot down,” Davis said. “I think I put in the work. I know that the work is going to come, and that’s what it came down to. And as you saw, I knocked the shot down. … I think I’m made for that type of play.”
The drama of Abmas’ shot attempt was so consuming, Davis fielded multiple questions about Arkansas’ defensive plan in that situation and his own role. This is what comes from keeping competitive logic in the rules, not gifting the trailing team with a massive advantage merely for the sake of manufacturing drama.
Former NCAA director of officiating John Adams called the timeout rule a “phony excitement additive” on Twitter. He’s right, of course. Arkansas-Oral Roberts didn’t need that. The game only needed some genuine tension, some creative basketball and a fair outcome, and it got all of that.