HARTFORD, Conn. – The most resplendent performances, the kind they reference for generations and immortalize in highlight montages, transcend mere statistics as evidence. The elite games come accompanied by a feeling, a tingle that the moment will reverberate for decades and forever bond those who witnessed it.
As No. 12 Murray State eviscerated No. 5 Marquette 83-64 on Thursday afternoon in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the accompanying snapshots will be of star point guard Ja Morant. He threw one-handed alley-oops, stepped back for a 3-pointer that ended the first half and finished a two-handed dunk on Marquette’s Joey Hauser that will likely be the authoritative freeze frame of Thursday’s game.
The compilation of those moments led to Ja Morant putting forth one of the best individual performances in NCAA tournament history. So many things made it impressive, but perhaps none more than both Morant and his Murray State teammates rising in union to not just capture the opportunity, but demolish it. They exhibited a collective swagger, and unflinching verve that left their locker room with a subdued feeling that there’s much more to come. “Teams should be scared to play us,” said Racers reserve Brion Whitley.
Has anyone had a more complete game in NCAA tournament history than Morant? With his face devoid of emotion and passes whipping out of his left hand – supposedly his weaker one — he tied an NCAA record for most assists in the first round with 16. He registered the 17th triple-double in the tournament’s 81-year history, a stat line that the 14,838 in attendance will forever be able to rattle off the top of their heads – 17 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds.
For hoops heads who streamed Ohio Valley Conference games to evaluate Morant as he elevated to a top-three NBA draft pick during his sophomore season, the game validated all the hype and promise. For the uninitiated, the ethereal first step, Russell Westbrook-like bursts and Ms. Cleo passing instincts were like seeing Springsteen at the Stone Pony.
Three years ago, Morant was an overlooked high school player that a former Murray State assistant accidentally found in an auxiliary gym. But enough has changed in those three years that Morant chuckled at a question about what he’d say to those who saw him for the first time today.
“Honestly, if they don’t know me by now, I don’t know what to say,” Morant said in the postgame locker room. “I just hope they can really see not me, but Murray State is a great team and we can run with the big dogs.”
That’s the part of the feeling that will resonate most with those hearty Murray State fans who traveled from Southwestern Kentucky to a dreary hockey arena in this nondescript Connecticut capital. This is the school’s fourth-ever NCAA win, as there is plenty of hoops history with Popeye Jones, Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne.
But none will be tied to the school quite like this one, billed as the first round’s marquee matchup – thanks to Morant foil Markus Howard – and it more than delivered. It’s the type of game that will be forever linked to a school, living on in perpetuity in the admissions office, on the recruiting trail and in stories commemorating its anniversary. “It’s the Ja Morant show,” Whitley said. “I feel like we’re Ja Morant University.”
One of the things Morant appreciated most about the stage was being able to share it with his teammates. America got to meet Shaq Buchanan, the defensive ace who held Howard to 9-for-27 shooting. They got to meet Tevin Brown, who drilled 5 of 9 from 3-point range to score a team-high 19 points. They got to see the all-around skill of Darnell Cowart, an undersized and slightly beefy mid-major post from central casting who had nine points, five rebounds and, perhaps the game’s best assist.
“It really puts the spotlight on some of these guys,” Morant said. “We have a great group of guys, not just me. I can’t win the game by myself.”
But he did steal the day in the NCAA tournament. The day’s defining highlight came from that Cowart assist on the high post, which led to a streaking Morant posterizing Marquette’s Hauser. Cowart summed up the play and day by saying, “We like to put on shows.”
Whitley expounded on Morant having little regard for Hauser getting in his way. “I hope homeboy gets some recovery, some ice,” Whitley said. “That was on his head. That was bad. Don’t jump with Ja.”
Statistically, the 19-point differential in the final score was the second-largest in a 12-5 upset in NCAA history. (Tip of the hat to Eastern Michigan’s 20-point beatdown of Mississippi State in 1991.) Murray State ended up as only a three-point favorite in Vegas and 40 percent of the participants in the Yahoo Sports Pick’Em selected the Racers to win.
But the way the game unfolded, as opposed to the simple bracket pick, made it feel like something bigger. This was Florida Gulf Coast’s Dunk City swashbuckling through Georgetown. It was Belmont pick-and-rolling Duke to a first-round demise. It was UMBC boot-stomping Virginia, minus the grander historical significance. Everyone who watched those games left knowing they’d seen something historic and wanted more.
The same rang true tonight, as Morant’s passes were greeted with gasps, and his drives left spectators looking more for where he’d dish than whether he’d finish.
“He’s a once-in-a-lifetime type player,” Murray State coach Matt McMahon said. “His IQ for the game, he sees things before anyone else.”
Morant is right-handed, but Marquette feared his left hand enough that they tried to force him to the right.
“It’s amazing,” McMahon said. “Cross-court passes, lobs, backdoor cuts. Whatever. It’s always right where the ball needs to be to lead his teammate into the shot. He’s had multiple games this year where more than half his assists were one-handed lefty passes.”
There was plenty of joy at the end of those passes, as Morant’s teammates finished on demand, celebrated with the giddiness of experiencing something new and looked every bit the part of a team that belonged. “It was the best time of my life,” Cowart said.
That could easily be topped on Saturday, as Murray State needs to beat No. 4 Florida State for the school’s first-ever trip to the Sweet 16. Is Murray State hooked on the feeling?
“We’re coming with an edge,” Whitley said, “and we’re coming to win and we don’t fear anyone.”
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