Max Abmas brought the ball up the floor with a little more than two minutes remaining in overtime, the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles up four on the Ohio State Buckeyes, a chance at history on the line.
No question who occupied the ball in crunch time. No hesitation to put the ball in the hands of the leading scorer in the country. No doubt this was Abmas’ March moment.
The sophomore guard dribbled into the high post, before taking a step-back jump shot that swooshed through the net. Oral Roberts defeated Ohio State 75-72, becoming the ninth 15th seed in NCAA men’s tournament history to knock off a 2-seed in the opening round. Abmas led the team in scoring with 29 points, playing 45 minutes.
The Golden Eagles followed up the upset victory with a gutsy 81-78 win over the Florida Gators to advance to the Sweet 16. Abmas continued to ball out, this time on the court for 40 minutes, scoring 26 points.
The way Abmas scores, it’s like C.J. McCollum at Lehigh or Stephen Curry at Davidson. Despite his prolific offense in high school, Abmas only received a handful of offers.
Abmas went from a two-star recruit to the nation’s leading scorer. Oral Roberts hit the jackpot with the young guard, as it looks to become the first 15th seed in NCAA tournament history to make the Elite Eight.
“Being in the NCAA tournament, I’m having an opportunity to compete against the top teams in the country,” Abmas said. “As a kid, I dreamt of that. It’s great to see the hard work paying off to this point.”
A road well traveled
Few routes exist to get from Rockwall, Texas, to Jesuit College in Dallas. The journey involves crossing Ray Hubbard Lake, traveling on two-lane highways before arriving in North Dallas. The trip is approximately 35 miles each way. It takes an hour one way, more during peak traffic.
Max Abmas grew up in Rockwall, the small residential town northeast of Dallas. His parents, Troy and Erika, wanted him to attend a school where he could play basketball but also receive a first-class education.
Jesuit College fit the bill. Every day, the Abmas family made the 35-mile, hourlong drive to Jesuit. Throughout the four years, they were late only one time. The sacrifice paid off, watching Max thrive on and off the basketball court.
“They set a great example of being supportive for each other,” said Jesuit College head coach Chris Hill. “They made great sacrifices for Max and he’s been able to take advantage of them because he’s got a great attitude, he’s always trying to be better. And he’s a great teammate.”
Hill never saw Abmas play before he was a freshman. Immediately, the youngster impressed Hill with his quickness and shooting ability.
“He was pretty special,” Hill said.
Because they didn’t have enough kids to fill the junior varsity team, Hill upgraded Abmas to the JV squad as a freshman for a couple of games. The JV coaches wanted to have him full time because he was the best player on the floor. Playing with older kids allowed Abmas’ basketball knowledge to flourish.
“Playing against really good players helped him be able to play at a fast pace, fix things up, and learn how to adjust because of the size,” Hill said.
As a sophomore, Abmas earned a promotion to the varsity team. He wasn’t the loudest player in the locker room. His humility apparent, Abmas used his on-court play to demonstrate his impact. But when he spoke, the team listened. Hill remembers Abmas in his junior year during the In-and-Out Burger Allen Holiday Invitational when Jesuit College took on Sulphur Springs. With a minute left and the Rangers up three, Hill called a timeout.
While the Jesuit coach used the timeout as a teaching moment, Abmas had other plans.
“Max put his hand on my chest and said, ‘Coach, you’ve got it,’ ” Hill said. “He says to his teammates, ‘What are we doing? Next play.’ I say that sometimes to get the guys refocused.”
Jesuit won the game, but it showed Abmas’ competitiveness. He wanted his teammates to go after it and win the game for each other.
“It’s really cool to see, especially with Max. He’s such a humble guy,” said Jesuit College assistant coach Jonathan Alexander. “Not surprising, given the kind of leader he is and the drive he has.”
In his senior season, Abmas averaged 19.1 points and 3.7 assists per game, receiving District 9-6A co-MVP honors. A lot of schools looked at Abmas, but he received only five offers: three from the military academies (Army, Navy, Air Force), Oral Roberts, and Marist College. It wasn’t just his scoring that impressed Golden Eagles head coach Paul Mills but his potential to grow in other aspects of his game.
“I can recall a 4:30 p.m. game on a Saturday where he made a pick-and-roll play with a player on his AAU team, who is now in the Big Ten,” Mills said. “You knew that he had the passing ability.”
A week before the Golden Eagles met with Abmas, they had a kid try to commit to their program. However, Oral Roberts decided to go all-in on Abmas.
That faith turned Abmas into a believer in the Golden Eagles, and he eventually signed with the program.
“They just fell in love with me from day one,” Abmas said. “They really wanted me to come in and have an impact on ORU basketball.”
Rematch against Arkansas
It’s easy to label Oral Roberts as a Cinderella team, given their seeding in the tournament. Look at the schedule, their competition, and the Golden Eagles believe they can beat anybody.
“When they rank us, it’s only a number at the end of the day,” forward Kevin Obanor said after the win against Ohio State. “We just have that mindset.”
According to the Ken Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings, Oral Roberts ranks fourth in the strength of nonconference schedule. Four out-of-conference games occurred against schools in the NCAA tournament, including Wichita State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, which Oral Roberts faces in the Sweet 16.
Against Wichita State and Oklahoma State, the Golden Eagles lost by single digits. Oral Roberts posted a double-digit lead against the Razorbacks before losing 87-76. Mills said that his team is much different from the one in December. The main difference is the offense, now primarily running through Abmas.
“Max is way more ball-dominant than he was previously,” Mills said. “Once our third-leading scorer went down, we told Max that he needed to be more assertive. We had to figure out where these other 11 shots were coming from, so we’re a different team.”
Oral Roberts entered the Summit League tournament as the fourth seed. While often overlooked, Mills is quick to remind anyone of the skill of Summit League conference, citing how it leads the nation among the 32 conferences in 3-point, field goal, and free throw percentages, along with offensive efficiency. Oral Roberts pulled off three consecutive upsets over North Dakota (76-65), South Dakota State (90-88), and North Dakota State (75-72), winning the Summit League to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
A large part of the Golden Eagles’ success in these big games is Abmas and Obanor. In both the NCAA tournament victories, Abmas and Obanor led the team in scoring, combining for 59 points against Ohio State and 54 points against Florida. For Abmas, having another scorer like Obanor opens up the offensive options for the Golden Eagles.
“I know Kevin puts in a lot of work,” Abmas said. “I’m always going to have confidence in him to knock down big shots.”
He’s scoring in the classroom, too
In a strange, unique season, Abmas’ offense never slowed down. Not only did he win Summit Player of the Year and First-Team All-Summit League, but the guard is the NCAA’s season scoring leader, averaging 24.5 points per game on 47.9% shooting. An academic all-district honoree out of high school, Abmas balances basketball with pursuing a degree in biomedical chemistry.
Despite the team’s success, it didn’t come without difficulties. As Mills said in his off-day media availability before the Sweet 16, some players had parents in the ICU due to COVID-19, not knowing whether they’d survive. Players had family members displaced because of the pandemic, resulting in tremendous financial strain.
Heart-wrenching. Unimaginable. Difficult. All words to describe the conditions some of these players had to endure. Despite these challenges, the connection between players and coaches grew stronger. Their strength, their love for each other developed a resiliency channeled through its leader Abmas.
“We all work hard. We all fight through everything,” Abmas said. “When everybody has that same mentality of not letting anything stop us, I think that definitely builds chemistry between all of us. At the end of day, we all want to win.”
On social media, Abmas is known as “Mid Court Max.” He’s also a huge fan of the late Kobe Bryant.
As he steps out onto the court on Saturday in the Sweet 16, the moment won’t be too big for the 19-year-old. Like the Mamba himself, Abmas will play to win, not afraid to lose.
Regardless of how this run ends for Oral Roberts, Abmas has arrived.
And is here to stay.