SportsPulse: The Ja Morant bandwagon is fully loaded and, according to USA TODAY’s Scott Gleeson, there’s no reason he can’t lead Murray State on a deep run.
HARTFORD, Conn. — It was long expected to be the main event at the XL Center on Thursday: Murray State. Marquette. Ja Morant. Markus Howard.
It more than lived up to the hype.
Howard was good, but Morant was magnificent — dunking on top of people, hitting step-back threes and dazzling with wraparound passes that turned into wide-open shots for teammates.
He became just the eighth player ever to record a triple-double in the NCAA tournament, and 12th-seeded Murray State routed the fifth-seeded Golden Eagles, 83-64, in a game that served as a celebration of two of the most talented guards in this year’s field — and, ultimately, a national re-introduction of sorts for Morant.
“If (people) honestly don’t know me by now,” Morant said with a smile after the game, “I don’t know what to say.”
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A no-star recruit from South Carolina who is projected to be a top-five NBA draft pick, Morant recorded the first triple-double in the NCAA tournament since Draymond Green achieved the feat in 2012. He finished with 17 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds. And he appeared to have lots of fun while doing it.
Morant was the guy mouthing “oh my God” after whipping a no-look pass into the post for a layup. The guy who made goggles with his hands after finding a teammate for an open three. After he hit a step-back three just before halftime and walked into the locker room talking smack — either to the Marquette fans who had chanted “o-ver-rate-ed” when he was at the free-throw line, or maybe to no one in particular.
“He’s a big-time, big-time player,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “You can’t speed him up. You can run two people at him, you can switch, try to get the ball out of his hands. There’s nothing that we found that could speed him up or shake his decision-making.”
The marquee Morant moment, though, was a dunk early in the second half. He collected a pass on a backdoor cut, dunked over Marquette forward Joey Hauser and scowled after he hit the ground. (You might have seen the play on social media by now.)
While Howard is a brilliant scorer — he dropped 16 in the first half and 26 total — Morant elevated the Racers (28-4) with an array of impressive passes, including five assists in the first 5:50 of the game. On multiple occasions in the first half, he drew the focus of all five Marquette defenders, then calmly dished the ball to a teammate for an open shot.
“You might see a lot of dunks and all that,” Morant’s high-school coach, Dwayne Edwards, told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday, “but to make a good pass — you’re talking about a guy who gets excited to set his teammate up with a good pass. That’s Ja Morant. You put four other players around him, and he can bring that out of them.”
That’s what happened Thursday evening — helping propel the Racers to their first NCAA tournament win since 2012, when they beat Colorado State in the first round with Isaiah Canaan at point guard.
Morant was hardly an unknown entering this tournament, especially among NBA fans who have often seen him near the top of mock drafts, alongside Duke star Zion Williamson. Thursday’s game simply put the slender 6-foot-3 guard in front of a national television audience, the grandest stage of his career to date.
“I really don’t pay too much attention to the hype,” Morant said. “I just try to go out and play the same game every night.”
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On this night, amazingly, he wasn’t particularly impressed with his performance — even with the triple-double.
Morant rates himself after every game on a scale of 1 to 5. On Thursday, he gave himself a 3.5 — too many turnovers, he said. (Morant had seven of them.)
That’s what allowed Howard and Marquette to hang around in the first half. It proved to be short-lived.
By the end, Murray State had built up a lead of more than 20 points, and two sections of Marquette fans behind their team’s bench sat in silence.
They weren’t chanting “o-ver-rate-ed” anymore.
Contact Tom Schad at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.