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Since the NCAA men's basketball tournament expanded to its current format 36 years ago, 144 teams have entered it as No. 15 seeds. Nine of 144 have won a game. Only two have ever won two games. And still, none has ever won a third.
Oral Roberts came oh-so-close on Saturday night.
It exited inches away from March Madness history.
Davonte Davis' jumper with 3.1 seconds remaining gave No. 3 seed Arkansas a 72-70 victory over the 15th-seeded Golden Eagles.
Max Abmas, the nation's leading scorer, missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer that would've sent Oral Roberts to the Elite Eight.
Instead, the Razorbacks held on, and will advance to face top-seeded Baylor. But only after a frenzied second-half comeback — and only after escaping a beautiful final play that almost seemed destined for March Madness lore.
Oral Roberts gives Arkansas a scare
Oral Roberts made more 3-pointers per game than anybody in Division I men's basketball this season. It took 46.4% of its field goals from beyond the arc. It made 38.2% of those long-range bombs. And it came out firing on Saturday.
The No. 15 seed didn't make a 2-point field goal until the 9:09 mark of the first half. But it made five 3s in the first seven minutes, and jumped out to an eight-point lead.
Arkansas, meanwhile, only made one 3-pointer all night. The underdogs took a seven-point lead into halftime.
The Golden Eagles' seventh 3-pointer of the game gave them a 12-point lead early in the second half. But Arkansas upped its defensive pressure, and began bullying its way to the rim. It cut the lead to four. Abmas extended it back to six. The Razorbacks cut it back to four. Then back up to seven, then back down to three. Arkansas' pressure never relented.
Oral Roberts held its nerve. But it was clearly affected by the Razorback pressure. Its sharpshooters went cold. It didn't make a single 3-pointer over the final 11-and-a-half minutes.
Arkansas tied the game with 6:59 remaining, then again with 5:35 left. A Jalen Tate layup with 5:01 on the clock gave the No. 3 seed its first lead since midway through the first half.
Abmas, though, kept the Golden Eagles in the game. He finished with 25 points, on par with his season average. And then a Kevin Obanor three-point play gave Oral Roberts the lead back with under two minutes to play.
But Tate went at the undersized Abmas on the other end, and scored over him to put Arkansas up 70-69.
Francis Lacis made one of two free throws to tie the game up with 31.5 seconds left.
Rather than call timeout, and give Oral Roberts a chance to set its defense, Arkansas coach Eric Musselman let his guys attack the final possession on their own. Their spacing wasn't great. The look they got wasn't exactly clean. But Davis, who was excellent throughout the second half, came through in the clutch.
Oral Roberts coach Paul Mills did too. He convened his team during the timeout, and drew up a super out-of-bounds play. Some clever screening action shook Abmas free of a double-team, and got him the ball speeding toward the rim. Abmas, who played every single minute of six postseason games, created space for himself, and rose into a darn good look, "exactly" as Mills designed it. Mills thought it was in.
"When it left my hands, it felt good," Abmas said.
"And it ended up coming up short."
Oral Roberts' run
Around a month ago, Oral Roberts was an NCAA tournament afterthought. It was 11-10 overall, and 0-5 against Division I teams outside its conference. It finished fourth in the nine-team Summit League.
The Golden Eagles narrowly upset South Dakota State and North Dakota State in the conference tournament to clinch an automatic March Madness bid. But few took notice. Over 98% of Yahoo users picked Oral Roberts to lose in the first round to No. 2 seed Ohio State.
The Gold Eagles were just the second No. 15 seed to win a second-round game. The first, Florida Gulf Coast's 2013 "Dunk City" squad, succumbed to third-seeded Florida in the Sweet 16 that year. Oral Roberts came much closer on Saturday night to a remarkable third win. But its tourney, and its longer-than-expected stat in Indianapolis, ended in agonizing fashion.
"Something I'll remember for the rest of my life," Abmas said postgame.
"I'll try to say this without crying, but it's my favorite team ever," Mills said as his voice got weak. "They mean a lot to me."
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