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ncaa men’s basketball Morant leads Racers past Howard, Eagles

March 22, 2019

HARTFORD — One guard was launching shots from all over the court, producing 26 points while missing a high number of his attempts.

The other was shooting and driving and — most notably — passing. Fueling his team’s offense by distributing the ball.

In the Main Event at the XL Center between Ja Morant and Markus Howard, the verdict was decisive. Fans learned that Howard, Marquette’s gifted guard, can most definitely score. But Morant, Murray State’s transcendent point guard, can do just about everything.

The final score Thursday afternoon: No. 12 Murray State 83, No. 5 Marquette 64.

The final line in the Battle of the Guards: Morant with 17 points, 16 assists, 11 rebounds; Howard with 26 points on 9 of 27 shooting, including 4 of 14 on 3-pointers.

But the real value in Morant’s game is seen in the rest of the boxscore. Tevin Brown had 19 points, K.J. Williams 16, Shaq Buchanan 14.

“The stat, 16 assists ... Obviously, I can’t get an assist without them making the shots,” Morant said. “I just feel like I have great players around me, and they made me look better.”

Or …

“He makes our job easier,” Buchanan said. “Once their men take their eyes off us, we just have to find the open spot. He see us and we make the defense pay.”

Morant’s star has been rising all season. The 6-foot-3 sophomore, overlooked as a recruit out of Dalzell, S.C., averaged 24.6 points and 10 assists as he led the Racers (28-4) in the NCAA Tournament.

He will likely be a top pick in the NBA Draft this summer, and he only enhanced his status in his first tournament game. And with a crowd of 14,838 cheering his every move, Morant was electrifying.

“Ja Morant makes a lot of plans look bad,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “I mean, I’ve been in this for a while. He’s as good as any guard that I’ve coached against, or played against, and I’ve coached against and played against some outstanding ones.”

The Morant-Howard duel was heavily anticipated leading up to the games at the XL Center.

They met and bonded at the Chris Paul Elite Guard Camp last summer, when each became aware of the other’s game.

“Markus actually was the first person I talked to,” Morant said. “We had a meeting that night when we got there. I sat at the table with him and had conversations with him. The experience was great, just being there with Chris Paul and other NBA players, just to learn some things from them. It was good.”

Said Howard, “Me and him were pretty close. We got close over that time in camp. We’ve been in contact throughout the season, supporting each other. ... He’s had a great year, their team has had a great year.”

In fact, Howard caught a glimpse of what the country has witnessed this season. Long before the national media turned its attention to Morant, Howard saw an elite player.

“There is some play where he just displayed his athleticism,” Howard said. “There’s some alley-oops thrown where his torso was above the rim. Just seeing that, I was blown away by that. Yeah, there’s some crazy plays that he made throughout the camp in terms of him playing above the rim. That was definitely something that caught my eye.”

There were those moments in Hartford. He rose and dunked over 6-9 forward Joey Hauser, he scored from the perimeter and drove to the basket.

But while Howard was scoring the majority of his team’s baskets early, Morant was distributing. And his team steadily built a lead.

Murray State coach Matt McMahon has joked about his “one-man” team as the Morant hype picked up momentum all season.

After the win over Marquette (24-10), he amplified his point.

“Ja deserves every bit of credit he gets he and then some,” McMahon said. “But we have a very balanced team.”

And Morant continually deflected praise during the postgame media session. Just as he shares the ball on the court, Morant shares the attention.

“I try to put myself in his shoes at 19 years of age,” McMahon said. “Could I have handled this the way he has, and there’s just no way. He’s just so humble. … He hasn’t changed one bit through all of the media hype, all the NBA hype. He’s just stayed focused getting better as a player. A Murray State leader and helping this team be the best team it can be.”

paul.doyle@hearstmediact.com; @pauldoyle1