Morant Puts on Show
HARTFORD, Conn. -- For months, there’s been palpable buzz in the college basketball world surrounding a guard with a two-letter first name who plays for a mid-major program in Kentucky.
Anyone remotely familiar with the sport had heard the tall tales of Ja Morant. He’s been labeled Russell Westbrook 2.0 and a slam-dunk top-three pick in June’s NBA Draft. But the Murray State Racers aren’t exactly on national television as much as, say, Duke. So the opportunities for the casual fan to watch Morant had been few and far between.
Thursday, however, offered the chance for the 6-foot-3, 175-pound sophomore sensation to be introduced to the country on the giant stage that is the NCAA Tournament. Morant didn’t just seize the moment, he delivered a historic performance the 14,838 in attendance at the XL Center, and the millions watching elsewhere, won’t soon forget.
Morant had 17 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds in 39 minutes to lead 12th-seeded Murray State (28-4) to an impressive 83-64 win over No. 5 Marquette in a West Regional first-round matchup. Morant’s triple-double was just the ninth in NCAA tourney history and the first since Draymond Green did it in 2012.
“It was a lot of fun just being able to go out with this group of guys and get a win in the tournament,” said a smiling Morant. “Just feels good.”
The explosive Morant made 5-of-9 shots from the field, made both of his 3-point attempts and all five of his free throw attempts. He dazzled in all facets of his game, showing off alarmingly amazing handles and whipping around crisp and creative passes with both hands. When he left his feet, he always had a plan.
It was as if every play he made induced a reaction of “did you see that?” or “how did he do that?” The arena fell in love with him and it was the type of performance that made sportswriters feel guilty for not paying an admission price.
Marquette had no answer for Morant’s magic.
“You know, Ja Morant makes a lot of plans look bad,” said Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski, who played at Duke. “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 game was billed as one of the best matchups of the tournament’s first round, particularly the guard battle between Morant, who came in averaging 24.6 points and 10.0 assists, and Marquette (24-10) junior guard Markus Howard (25.0 ppg). Howard scored a game-high 26 points, but did so on 9-for-27 shooting.
The game’s signature moment came when Morant got the ball around the 3-point line with a running start, took one dribble and flushed down a vicious two-handed dunk on Marquette forward Joey Hauser to put the Racers up 51-38 with 17:34 left.
From there, the rout was on and Hartford felt like Murray-North. All that hype felt deserved. Morant was showing anyone watching he is indeed the real deal.
“I really don’t pay too much attention to the hype,” said Morant. “I just try and go out and play the same game every night. Just try to do whatever I can to help my team come out with a win.”
Believe it or not, Morant, who is from Dalzell, S.C. once questioned if he was good enough when he was in high school. Murray State took a shot on him, and head coach Matt McMahon knew he was good enough the moment he stepped foot on campus.
“He’s just got some special intangibles to him in addition to the athleticism, the explosiveness, and ridiculous court vision and feel for the game,” said McMahon. “He’s got an unselfishness and competitiveness about him that’s been contagious within our program, in our locker room.”
Next up for Morant and Murray State will be a second-round meeting with No. 4 Florida State, which defeated No. 13 Vermont, 76-69, at the XL Center on Thursday.
The Seminoles outlasted the America East champion Catamounts, despite the fact that it was a undeniably pro-Vermont crowd. Fortunately for FSU, it had Lowell native Terance Mann, who scored 17 of his 19 points in the second half to help Florida State pull away after the game was tied 27-27 at the half and back-and-forth for much of the second half.
Mann, a senior 6-foot-7 guard, made 6-of-8 from the floor and 7-of-8 from the line, and grabbed eight rebounds. He stuffed the stat sheet in front of a large gathering of family and friends in his native New England.
“It’s amazing playing back at home, especially to be doing it my senior year, my last year, kind of a last run in front of everybody,” Mann said. “So it was an amazing feeling. My mentality just changed (in the second half). I didn’t want to lose and go home, especially since it’s my senior year. I just wanted to score the ball, keep my team involved and try to win.”
Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton was certainly glad to have Mann on his side.
“When Terance was a freshman, I dubbed him a stat-stuffer, because he affects all phases of the game,” said Hamilton. “So to see him, he kind of gives us whatever we need in certain games. And the interesting thing about him, he’s unselfish almost to the point that if we’re winning and we have a margin that we’re working on, he very seldom becomes that aggressive. But when we’re behind, he takes it to another level, and this is something we’ve seen him do consistently night in and night out this year.”
Follow Matt Langone on Twitter @MattLangone