TULSA, Okla.-The ORU men’s basketball team, and Coach Scott Sutton, knew the challenge ahead in 2012-13 as they saw national and mid-major powerhouses on the schedule, but missed opportunities and other adversity led to disappointment early in the season. Even though the preseason favorites in the Southland Conference did not hold rank, ORU posted a second consecutive 20-win season and won a postseason tournament game for the first time in 38 years.
Seniors Damen Bell-Holter and Warren Niles ended their careers in the top-10 in a number of single season and career statistical categories in ORU history. Niles finished with 1,984 career points (8th) and 292 made 3-pointers (4th), while Bell-Holter finished fifth with 878 career rebounds and fourth with 139 career blocks.
“I still feel the same that I did after our loss to Weber State,” said Sutton after a couple of weeks to reflect on the season. “I think it’s a season full of missed opportunities, but that’s athletics. There is such a fine line between a great season and an OK season. Anytime you win 20 games and get to the postseason, I think you have to say you had some success and there certainly was, but it could have been a lot better and should have been a lot better. We lost some games that we had no business losing. I thought we lost some close games early in the year that probably affected the confidence of this team.”
A pair of postseason victories helped the mood around the Mabee Center though: “I was happy for our seniors, I thought they both had great seasons and they both went out as first team all-conference players. They both had really good careers and probably the best thing was that we were able to come back and beat UC Irvine at home and kind of make up for their senior night loss.”
Despite the two seniors who had logged a lot of experience entering the season, it was a young ORU team that took the court, with just 15 years of experience spread out between 15 players, putting ORU in the top-15 for the youngest roster in the nation. Eight players saw their first action in an ORU uniform this season, including seven who had never seen action in a collegiate game, with Shawn Glover being the lone exception.
With unknowns at the point guard position early in the year, ORU got rattled on the road against UTEP to start the season but gained some confidence in a non-Division I game against St. Gregory’s. That confidence spilled over into a road victory at Pacific, who was one of two NCAA Tournament teams that ORU took down this year, and a first-round victory over Loyola Marymount in the Great Alaska Shootout.
A loss to eventual champion Charlotte and a second to one of the pre-tournament favorites in Belmont left ORU with fifth place in the tournament.
Nearly a month into the season, ORU returned home for just the second time as they hosted in-state foe Oklahoma in one of the marquee nonconference matchups. ORU trailed for just four minutes the entire game, but surrendered the lead late, dropping a third straight game and second by less than four points.
Big road wins against Missouri State and Texas State took ORU into Tucson, Ariz., but the number four team in the country lived up to the billing, defending its home court.
With almost 13,000 miles of travel already recorded during the nonconference portion of the schedule, ORU hosted Tulsa for the annual PSO Mayor’s Cup just before Christmas break. Again it was an ORU lead for the majority of the game, including a 17-point lead at one point. But like OU had in the previous home game, Tulsa made a furious come back and took over late.
Despite a 5-6 record and a disappointing loss to the Golden Hurricane, ORU had plenty to be pleased with, most notably Niles, who was off to one of the hottest starts in the country, shooting at a high percentage and having scored 20 or more points in eight of the first 11 games.
The Golden Eagles made one final road trip during the nonconference season, fighting hard but falling to the eventual Conference USA champion Memphis Tigers on the road, without the services of Steven Roundtree, who injured his leg at practice the night before the game.
Now sitting at 5-7 and without one of their starters, ORU also faced a new conference ahead, which presented new challenges as well.
“One of the challenges of switching conferences was the fact that we had never been to most of these places before,” said Sutton. “Not only were we facing new teams, but we had to deal with the challenges of finding new places to stay, and get comfortable with nine new arenas.”
ORU could have cashed it in, but instead took two easy road victories to start its Southland Conference tenure. A victory over NCAA Tournament qualifier Northwestern State had ORU feeling good but another stumble at home, this time to regular season champion Stephen F. Austin, left ORU an uncharacteristic 2-3 at home but still 3-1 in league play.
As they seemed to do all season, the Golden Eagles bounced back again and won six in a row in league play, setting up another showdown between the top three teams in the league, ORU, Northwestern State and SFA.
28 turnovers proved the difference against the Demons in the rematch and despite scoring the second most points (67) against the nation’s best defense, ORU dropped another game to SFA, going 0-2 on the conference road trip for the first time since January of 2011, falling to 9-3 in the SLC.
To make matters worse, second-leading scorer Glover, who finally seemed to feel comfortable, having scored at least 20 points in four of the last five games, sustained an eye injury in the second half against the Lumberjacks and would not return to the game.
Needing to carry and even bigger load, Bell-Holter posted eight-straight double-doubles in Southland play, adding to an ever-growing and very impressive list of accomplishments. Included in that list was the first 25-point/20-rebound game of the season at the Division I level, and becoming the sixth active player to reach 1,000 points, 750 rebounds, 100 assists and 100 blocks for a career.
A BracketBuster loss to Weber State and an upset on the road at the hands of McNeese halted the momentum gained from three home wins, but the Golden Eagles finished strong, winning the final two games on the road at Lamar and Central Arkansas and claimed the #3 seed in the 2013 Southland Conference Tournament.
An early exit was obviously not what was expected but a pesky Sam Houston team proved that it was hard to beat a team three times and upset the Golden Eagles in the quarterfinals of the Southland Conference Tournament.
From there, ORU had to wait and hope for a postseason bid, sitting on 18 wins and a third-place regular season finish. The CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament jumped at the opportunity to get the Golden Eagles and a first-round trip to Texas to face UT Arlington awaited.
There was a renewed energy from the team and ORU jumped on the Mavericks, leading by as many as 20 on the road, posting the first postseason victory at ORU since 1975 and earning a home game in the second round.
Again ORU looked like a different team than had ended the regular season and cruised to a home victory over UC Irvine, advancing to the quarterfinals of the CIT, where they got a rematch with Weber State. Unfortunately, ORU got caught in a buzz-saw in Ogden, Utah, battling the altitude, and a team that had won 15 of the final 16 games up to that point.
Down two with the ball and six minutes to play, ORU had the chance to advance to the first final four in any postseason tournament in school history, but a spurt by Weber State ended ORU’s season at 20-15.
Through it all, ORU may be better in the long run, having gotten additional playing time for a number of first-year guys, filling Sutton with optimism for 2013-14.
“I’m excited about next year,” said Sutton. “With the class that we’ve signed and the guys we have coming back, plus Obi Emegano, who had to sit out last year after transferring, I think we have a great make up for a team that will be good. Obi will have an immediate impact on this team and on this program. He is a high character guy with great leadership qualities. He has experience playing at this level and he will be an immediate impact player. Then we had some guys who gained some experience last year. D.J. Jackson and Korey Billbury will be better, Brandon Conley played a lot of minutes and even Jorden Kaufman, who played early in the year got some experience. We will depend on a lot of these newcomers and you never know how well they’ll adjust to this level but it will certainly be one of our more talented teams.”