Inside Ja Morant’s NCAA tournament star turn

HARTFORD, Conn. — Zion Williamson has a co-star in this NCAA tournament, at least through the first weekend.

His name is Ja Morant, and his triple-double effort (17 points, 16 assists, 11 rebounds) in 12-seed Murray State’s 83-64 win over 5-seed Marquette in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday confirmed the hype — “I have him No. 2 on my personal board,” said one NBA scout who watched the game — that hovered above an Ohio Valley Conference superstar many had only heard about but not witnessed on the grand stage.

“I really don’t pay too much attention to the hype,” Morant said after the game. “I just try to go out and play the same game every night.”

His performance, just the eighth triple-double in NCAA tournament history and the first since Draymond Green’s in 2012, can be summarized in a handful of videos – you might want to cover your eyes as you watch his two-handed dunk over Joey Hauser — circulating on social media. But Morant’s performance generated sounds that detailed his excellence throughout the captivating victory for Murray State, which will now advance to face Florida State on Saturday in the second round.

As Marquette swarmed the Murray State sophomore at the XL Center, you could hear the rapid squeaks from the shoes of freshman Brendan Bailey, who chased Morant throughout the game, and the stomps of teammate Joey Hauser as he sprinted to help.

Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski screamed instructions to a desperate team as he squatted on the sideline.

Marquette fans cheered for a miracle. Murray State, explosive throughout the matchup, praised the one they had.

And whenever Morant seemed stuck, he paused, usually somewhere near the “March Madness” logo in the middle of the court, and dribbled. But the pace of his dribbling never changed. Marquette zoned, pressed, doubled and shadowed Morant.

Marquette had to answers to stopping Murray State’s Ja Morant. Rob Carr/Getty Images

Yet, the rhythm of Morant’s dribbling persisted.

Thump … thump.

Bailey and Joey Hauser trapped him at the top the key.

Thump … thump.

Morant dribbled himself into a tough spot along the baseline.

Thump … thump.

The shot clock approached expiration and no smart play appeared imminent.

Thump … thump .

“I have a ton of respect for him,” Wojciechowski said after the game. “I mean, the triple-doubles, 16 assists in an NCAA tournament. It’s crazy. 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 is nothing that we found that could speed him up or shake his decision-making.”

Wojciechowski won national defensive player of the year award from the National Association of Basketball Coaches as a senior at Duke during the 1997-98 season. His Golden Eagles finished second in defensive efficiency in Big East play after holding league opponents to a 45.8 percent clip inside the arc. But nothing seemed to work on Thursday.

Sacar Anim stuck to Morant in the opening minutes and tried to limit his shot attempts. But he zipped his Patrick Mahomes-like passes through traffic and produced five assists before the first TV timeout.

Bailey, a 6-8 freshman, seemed to frustrate Morant in spurts. But Morant just used the pressure — Bailey always had help whenever the NBA prospect drove — to shift the balance of the court and find shooters on a team that made 50 percent of its 3-pointers.

And then, Morant hit a step-back 3-pointer over Theo John toward the end of the first half.

That’s when Morant knew he had them. A Marquette team that wasn’t sure if Morant would penetrate, pass or both, grew hesitant and cautious as Murray State’s lead grew.

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A dunk over Joey Hauser – which seemed to illustrate the problem teams had all season against a player who could go around them or over them – off a backdoor cut seemed otherworldly.

In the locker room after the game, Marquette’s players sat on their stools, stunned and saddened by the loss. Both Anim and Bailey smirked — not because the loss didn’t matter but because they knew they’d done all they could — when they were asked to describe their experiences against Morant.

“It was pretty frustrating,” Bailey said. “You think you got him stopped and then he just passes to one of his teammates in the paint.”

Anim said Morant put his “passes on the money.”

“He was getting them boys open shots,” he said.

Prior to Thursday’s game, Morant had been streamed, tweeted, packed into 10 o’clock news packages and analyzed by national analysts despite doing his best work on the mid-major circuit. His performance on a national stage — the first time many had actually watched him play — prompted one person in the XL Center to call a friend and say, “Ja Morant is the real deal, huh?”

The answer is yes. In real life, Morant looked the part of a future NBA star.

“Think about him when he gets strong,” one NBA scout said.

He wasn’t the only storyline. Murray State is blessed with other athletes who Florida State must consider on Saturday. Tevin Brown’s 5-for-9 clip from the 3-point line helped Morant operate. Shaq Buchanan put up double figures and corralled a frustrated Markus Howard, who struggled in the second half.

But Morant was just sparring with a team that competed for the Big East title.

When he plays on Saturday, you’ll want to watch because he might be the most entertaining player in America.

“You know, Ja Morant makes a lot of plans look bad,” 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.”

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