TULSA, Okla.-Although the men's basketball season didn't end the way that anyone at Oral Roberts would have wished, the 2011-12 season, behind Summit League Player of the Year Dominique Morrison, was a record-setting season, which included a Summit League Regular Season Championship.
"Despite not achieving our ultimate goal of getting to the NCAA tournament, when you look back we had an outstanding season," said Coach Scott Sutton. "What this group accomplished-finishing 17-1 in the conference, winning the regular season championship, winning 27 games and setting several school records-this has to go down as one of the most successful teams we've had at ORU. As a coach you want to maximize your abilities and I think this group certainly did that."
Individually, Morrison claimed first team all-league honors in addition to his player of the year award, and was also named to the NABC All-District team. Sophomore Steven Roundtree earned Summit League Sixth Man of the Year honors and was honorable mention all-conference, while Sutton was tabbed the conference Coach of the Year.
Other notable awards included Michael Craion (second team all-conference) and Warren Niles (honorable mention all-conference). Damen Bell-Holter's near full-court shot at the buzzer to beat UALR was named ESPN's King of the Night and was named a finalist for the GEICO Play of the Year. Two other times this season ORU was featured on ESPN SportsCenter's Top-10 as Jake Lliteras ran through a pass and dunked over the top of a South Dakota player, and Roderick Pearson hit a runner at the buzzer to beat IUPUI in overtime. Mikey Manghum earned Capital One Academic All-District honors from CoSIDA and Morrison was named ESPN's Player of the Night, one of the top-10 mid-major players, and the Summit League Athlete of the Month.
As can be seen by the multiple honors, it was a team effort as the Golden Eagles had a shortened bench from the start of the season. After losing point guard Ken Holdman to an ACL injury before the season, Bell-Holter struggled with a sore back to start the year, and missed six games after seeing limited action in the season-opener against West Virginia.
"Unfortunately playing with a short bench is something that we've gotten used to," said Sutton. "Over the past three years we've been hit hard by the injury bug. Teams go through that, but this group certainly overcame a lot of adversity. Fortunately the rest of the guys stayed pretty healthy the rest of the year. One area I think it always affects you and this season was no different than the last two, is it is difficult to have good practices when you are so short handed. With the injuries it was certainly a challenge to have good practices late in the year."
With roles shifted and without a healthy center, the Golden Eagles got off to an 0-2 start with losses at West Virginia and in the first round of the Dick's Sporting Goods NIT Tip Off against UTSA in Stillwater, a game that went down a buzzer-beater that went against ORU.
The Golden Eagles figured things out and finished off the tournament with a 3-1 record, and rattled off six-straight wins, including victories over Missouri State and Southern Utah in the Summit League opener. Losses at Oklahoma and Gonzaga sandwiched the exciting victory over UALR, and put the team's record at a respectable 7-4 to start the year.
With a chance to tie the game late on the road against eventual NCAA tournament qualifier Gonzaga, ORU gained some momentum despite a six-point loss, and carried that into a road contest against then No. 8 Xavier, who was playing without four suspended players.
ORU looked almost as dominant as they did all season, handing the Musketeers a 22-point loss, the worst loss inside the Cintas Center. The victory propelled ORU into the national spotlight, and also kick-started a 13-game winning streak, which tied for the fourth-longest streak in school history as an NCAA Division I program.
The streak included victories over Texas Tech and eventual Summit League tournament champion South Dakota State at home, and over defending conference champion Oakland in front of more than 9,000 fans in the Mabee Center. While second to a 52-game winning streak (1969-1973) in the school history books, the 23-game winning streak was the longest inside the Mabee Center during the facilities' 40-year history.
"I think momentum started with that three-game road trip with Little Rock, Gonzaga and Xavier. All three of those games played a role in the turnaround. Although our record wasn't terrible at that time, that shot certainly gave us some momentum. Any time a program like ours can get the attention that the shot awarded this team and Damen, I think it helps confidence. Then we went to Gonzaga and played an excellent basketball team awfully close and had chances down the stretch to win that game. Of course going to Xavier, even though they were short handed in that game, it was a top-10 team and the way we played and the way we beat them really served as a springboard for the remainder of the year and we really never looked back. We won 20 of the next 21 games and I think that trip was really key in giving this team confidence in how good they could be."
After going 45 days without a loss, the Golden Eagles were finally tripped up at South Dakota State, but recovered to beat North Dakota State and went on to win the final six regular season games, including a SEARS/ESPN BracketBuster matchup against Akron.
With an incredible 17-1 conference record, the most conference victories in school history, the Golden Eagles wrapped up the regular season championship on the road against IPFW with one regular season conference game remaining, winning the championship by a two-game margin.
The top seed in the 2012 Summit League Tournament, Craion blocked a shot with less than a second left and sealed a victory over IPFW in the opening round. The semifinals looked like another opportunity for this special team to once again defy the odds and find a way to win a close game, but a Western Illinois jumper with :26 to play proved the dagger, knocking ORU out of the tournament.
With a 27-6 record and an RPI as high as 38 this season, a loss that would have normally dashed the hopes of the ORU faithful instead turned the attention to the selection committee to see if the Golden Eagles could become the third Summit League team and the first since Northern Illinois in 1991 to earn an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament.
As Selection Sunday neared, the talk of ORU gained steam as analysts such as Doug Gottlieb continually built the case for the Golden Eagles on ESPN. The efforts nearly worked as reports had anywhere from the next team in, to one of six that would have gone to a vote if St. Bonaventure had not won the A-10 Conference Tournament.
Even though they didn't get the bid they were looking for, the Golden Eagles had a safety net for their season, earning an automatic bid into the NIT as a reward for having won the regular season conference championship. A number four seed in the tournament, ORU was selected to host the first round game, drawing a team in Nevada with a similar story to its own. Much like ORU, the Wolf Pack won their regular season championship but were knocked out in the semifinals of the tournament, and had hopes of an at-large NCAA berth.
The matchup proved to be all it was on paper as the second half had 11 lead changes before Nevada eventually pulled away. The loss ended the season for ORU, and also ended a 23-game home winning streak that dated back to December 30, 2010 and was the third-longest active streak in the country.
With 2,080 points, Morrison finishes his career fifth all-time at ORU, after posting 674 points in his senior campaign, the seventh-best season in the school's storied history. He will finish his four-year career in the top-10 in points, field goals made, free throws made and free throw percentage. He was also a finalist for the Lou Henson Mid-Major Player of the Year Award and was named to the Naismith Midseason 30 watch list.
In their respective junior seasons, Niles moved into the top-10 in 3-pointers made and attempted, and Bell-Holter moved up to seventh with 89 career blocks.
Though the careers of Morrison, Craion, Pearson and Robert Aery, who played in seven games and set career highs in points, field goals, free throws, assists and steals this season, ORU will return two starters (Bell-Holter, Niles), the sixth man of the year (Roundtree), back-up point guard Manghum and redshirt freshman Lliteras, adding D.J. Jackson, P.J. Purnell and Utah transfer Shawn Glover to the roster, all of whom practiced with the Golden Eagles this season.
"I think we have a really good nucleus coming back," said Sutton. "We have some areas we need to address in recruiting, but I think we are really good at positions two through five, when you look at Warren Niles, who I think will really blossom, a transfer in Shawn Glover who is extremely talented and then Steven Roundtree and Damen Bell-Holter who have a ton of experience inside, it gives us a great group coming back. Those four give us a good core coming back. We need the other guys, Mikey, Jake and D.J. to have a great off season. We signed two guys during the early period that have a chance to come in and play immediately. And I'm excited about Korey Billbury, I think he can come in and play because of his toughness and he has good strength for a young player."