Rodriguez shines in homecoming as No. 7 seed OC does it again


TULSA, Okla. (March 1, 2018) – Thursday provided a familiar feeling of joy, both for Abel Rodriguez and Oklahoma Christian basketball fans.

Rodriguez, a former Union High School standout playing in his old gym for Oklahoma Christian, had the game of his life with a career-high 25 points and 11 rebounds to lead the seventh-seeded Eagles to an 88-79 win over second-seeded – and No. 17-ranked – Arkansas-Fort Smith in the quarterfinals of the Heartland Conference Championship tournament.

The result – a win in OC's first postseason game as a member of NCAA Division II – surprised many, but not necessarily OC fans who remember the last time the Eagles played in a conference tournament. Back in 2012, a seventh-seeded OC team swept to the Sooner Athletic Conference tournament title, beating three NAIA-ranked foes in as many days.

OC (11-17) will continue its quest for the tournament title Saturday at 5 p.m. against third-seeded Newman (Kan.) or sixth-seeded St. Edward's (Texas), but before then, the Eagles deserve to savor their second win this season in three tries against UAFS (24-5), a team that will no doubt be in the Division II tournament that starts next week.

The Eagles are 4-3 this season against teams that are or have been ranked in the Division II top 25 and they're brimming with confidence.

"I'm extremely proud of this team and this group of guys," OC coach Cory Cole said. "Just like every team that's here, we deserve to be here. Our guys have believed and fought. The best thing about this team is our chemistry. They love each other and you can see it when times get tough. These guys just grow closer. This game showed that."

Rodriguez, long known in the OC program as an "energy" player off the bench, has become a significant contributor for the Eagles in recent weeks, having scored in double figures in four times in the last eight games after never having done so for the Eagles before that. His performance was particularly important against UAFS, with OC forward Roderick Smith limited to 10 minutes (and zero points) by foul trouble.

"I have a feel for the gym, so it wasn't a problem adjusting," Rodriguez deadpanned. "I felt good."

Cole said he'd never seen Rodriguez play so well.

"Abel was in the zone like in the movie 'White Men Can't Jump,' where you're calling plays but he's just feeling it," Cole said. "He's doing stuff he hasn't done in practice and we're just ad-libbing and playing off of that. … We have different guys who step up in different moments. That's what it takes in March Madness, is to have that depth and that chemistry."

That he was able to play so well in front of friends and family at the Union Multipurpose Activity Center was special to Rodriguez, who shared a postgame hug with his old high school coach, Rudy Garcia.

"I just know that at this point, not every game is promised, so I just try to go out there and give it all for my team," Rodriguez said. "You can win, you can lose, but you just want to make sure you leave that court knowing you left it all out there."

OC closed the game on a 19-9 run over the final six minutes, fueled by clutch plays from Rodriguez, fellow senior Elijah Strickland – who scored 28 points on 6-of-13 3-point shooting – and Jordan Box, who had 15 points and six assists.

Rodriguez started the run with a dunk, then gave OC the lead with a 3-pointer that made it 72-70 with 5:08 left. Brett Jolly hit two free throws with 4:59 left to pull the Lions even, but Rodriguez answered with two free throws at the 4:30 mark, Strickland followed with a 3-pointer and the Eagles weren't caught again.

Strickland swished a 30-foot 3-pointer with 2:27 left to make it 80-74. Chris Crawford hit a 3-pointer with 2:17 left for UAFS, but that proved to be the Lions' final basket. After Rodriguez –playing with four fouls – took a charge from the Lions' Kyree Elder with 1:46 left, Box knocked down a 3-pointer from the corner with 1:21 left.

After a couple of UAFS misfires, the Eagles went 5 of 6 from the free-throw line in the final 1:05 to seal the win.

OC finished 13 of 31 from 3-point range while UAFS was 5 of 22, something UAFS coach Josh Newman cited as a key difference, along with his team's 24-of-37 performance from the free-throw line. OC hit 21 of 24 free throws.

"They made some huge shots in the second half," Newman said of the Eagles. "They never went away. We had a chance a couple of times to really separate, but give them a tremendous amount of credit, because they never quit believing. They played a great game and they beat us.

"Shot selection for us, and transition (defense) for us was terrible, just to be honest. Our transition defense was not good. When you give Jordan Box and Elijah Strickland an open three, they're going to start making those."

OC limited the Heartland's player of the year, DaVaunta Thomas, to 11 points and eight rebounds. Ladarius Coleman led the Lions with 16 points and nine rebounds, while Oklahoma transfer Darrion Strong-Moore had 15 points and Jolly added 13.

That the Eagles finished well overshadowed a rough start. OC began the game by making just one of its first 11 shots and trailed 14-3 barely more than eight minutes into the game. UAFS was up 35-21 with 4:51 left in the first half, but the Eagles tied the game with a 17-3 run before trailing 40-38 at halftime.

OC didn't take its first lead until Charles Shaw hit a 3-pointer from the corner to make it 60-58 with 10:26 left. For the next seven minutes, no more than three points separated the teams until OC pulled away at the end.

"We just believed in ourselves and believed in our teammates to get us the ball in perfect positions to score," Strickland said. "We just put it all on the line today. We've got to give thanks to our teammates for doing the same."


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