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.
Morant dazzled with a mammoth dunk over Joey Hauser, and wraparound assists that turned into wide-open 3-pointers for teammates.
Howard responded with step-back jumpers and floaters in the lane.
In the end, however, Morant and 12th-seeded Murray State proved to be too much, routing 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 NCAA tournament – and, ultimately, a national re-introduction of sorts for Morant.
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 some fun while doing it.
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When Morant hit a step-back three just before halftime, for example, he 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.
While Howard was a brilliant scorer – dropping 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.
He responded by making goggles with his hands after finding a teammate for an open three. By mouthing “oh my God” after whipping a no-look pass into the post for a layup. By scowling after dunking on top of Hauser –- a play you might have seen on social media by now.
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.