FAYETTEVILLE, Arkansas — It’s been suggested that Oral Roberts might have the best 4-seed in all the NCAA Tournament.
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn certainly thinks so.
“I’ve been saying that,” Van Horn said Friday night after his top-seeded Razorbacks held off the Golden Eagles 3-0 in a first-round game at the Fayetteville Regional. “… Believe me, I haven’t been looking forward to it. Been thinking about it a lot, even during the SEC Tournament.
“That’s an SEC team right there. I felt like it was Friday night in the SEC. I feel fortunate to have beaten them.”
That, of course, is of little consolation to ORU (42-15). The top-seeded and host Razorbacks (43-17) are headed to Saturday night’s winner’s bracket semifinals (versus Missouri State) while the Golden Eagles get a 2 p.m. elimination game against Oklahoma State.
“In order to win, you gotta play well,” said ORU coach Ryan Folmar, “and we didn’t play well here tonight.”
The Golden Eagles were shut down offensively by Razorbacks ace Trevor Stephan (6-3), who struck out 12 in 7 1/3 innings. That wasted a strong start by ORU ace Miguel Ausua (11-3), who gave up three walks and eight hits but only allowed one earned run.
“Miguel’s start was exceptional,” Folmar said. Four of his hits, three were infield singles and one was that bloop in shallow center. Proud of the way Miguel stood in there and gave us a chance.
“We just weren’t good enough offensively today.”
It was the first time all season the Golden Eagles were shut out.
The Baum Stadium crowd of 11,088 also was the largest crowd to watch ORU play this season (the previous high was 4,161 at Alabama). They hung on every one of Arkansas’ 14 total strikeouts.
“It’s incredible,” Stephan said. “Gives you chills up and down your spine. It’s awesome being able to experience that here.”
The Golden Eagles loaded the bases in the third inning, but Stephan struck out Noah Cummings looking to end the threat.
“That was huge,” Van Horn said. “When he got through that, seemed like the momentum kind of changed a little bit.”
ORU got two more runners on in the fourth, but that threat was squelched when shortstop Jax Biggers ranged behind the bag for Sam Grellner’s ground ball up the middle and blindly flipped behind his back to Carson Shaddy for the force out at second base. After that, Stephan retired 10 consecutive ORU hitters.
“The ball kind of skipped and (Biggers) had to throw that arm out there a little bit farther and then he made a nice flip. Lot of times you don’t finish that play. You get off a little bit. He flipped it and Carson didn’t panic. The ball was to his right and instead of reaching across his body with the glove, he just reached out with the bare hand and caught it and found the base. They had a runner on third at the time. Saved a run. It was a huge play for us.”
ORU also played strong defense, but one play let them down: In the seventh, trailing 1-0, Ausua threw to first and had Jake Arledge picked off. But shortstop Dylan Snypes didn’t handle Brent Williams’ throw from first and the ball skipped into the outfield. As Arledge broke for third, left fielder Michael Hungate — who threw out a runner at home earlier in the game — threw behind Arledge and he was safe at third. Arledge eventually scored on Eric Cole’s single for a 2-0 lead.
The Golden Eagles put runners on first and second in the eighth inning, but Kevin Kopps got a strikeout and a groundout back to the mound.
In the ninth, ORU had the tying run at the plate with two out, but Matt Cronin ended it by striking out leadoff hitter Nick Roark.
“We had opportunities,” said Folmar, who is still looking for his first NCAA Tournament win (now 0-5) in five seasons as head coach. “We left those guys in the middle (of the lineup) some opportunities, we just didn’t take advantage of it, just couldn’t cash in, and I thought that was the difference.
“It’s something they’ve done well all year long.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.