March Madness’ brightest star was finally extinguished but not before one final explosion that allowed your mind to wander in boundless anticipation of what was to come.
Murray State point guard Ja Morant, who was coming off of the NCAA Tournament’s first triple-double in seven years in an upset win Thursday over No. 5 seed Marquette, picked up right where he left off against the Golden Eagles with 28 points, five rebounds and four assists in a 90-62 loss to No. 4 seed Florida State in the second round.
However, there may not have been a worse matchup for Morant and the No. 12-seeded Racers than the Seminoles, who have Uber XL depth with 11 players who average at least 10 minutes per game – 10 of whom are 6-4 or taller. They went under screens and dared Morant to shoot over their length, which proved futile initially but they really gave Morant headaches in the mid-range and at the rim.
Morant, who set Murray State’s career assist record late in the game as he found teammate Devin Gilmore for a dunk for his 532nd assist in two seasons, made his first five 3-point attempts, all of which came in the game’s first 12 minutes.
He hit threes from the right wing on back-to-back possessions, which gave the Racers a 13-7 advantage at the first media timeout.
[RELATED: 2019 NCAA Tournament Schedule, Dates, Times]
On the second of the two threes that he hit in quick succession, he set up Florida State guard M.J. Walker, a former top-30 recruit, with a crossover as his teammate KJ Williams approached from Morant’s left and Walker’s right. Walker spun in a circle around the screen while Morant dribbled away from it, pulling up for a wide-open three a few feet behind the line.
Ja Morant ain’t done yet!
Starting 3/3 from deep in this one. pic.twitter.com/fnluhfdbkG
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 23, 2019
It was like he had a laser pointer, making a cat spin in circles as it chased after the laser beam.
However, in between Morant’s fourth and fifth threes, he appeared to twist his right ankle as he planted his foot to cut during a sidelines out-of-bounds play. He limped to Murray State’s bench with an expression that conveyed some combination of pain and frustration but he stayed in the game.
When his fifth and final three dropped from the top of the key, it gave him 16 points and three assists in the game’s first 11 and a half minutes.
This dude Ja might be good at basketball. pic.twitter.com/OHUbWXaF5V
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 23, 2019
Whether Morant wasn’t at 100 percent moving forward or the Seminoles’ 10th-ranked defense wore down Murray State’s high-usage floor general, his shooting quickly fell off. He finished the first half making just 2-of-6 shots after twisting his ankle.
Florida State threw almost every defender possible at Morant during the game. The 6-5 Walker and 6-7 Terance Mann drew their share of defensive assignments on Morant. Freshman Anthon Polite, 6-6, and 6-4 junior Trent Forrest spent time guarding him, too.
The threat of 7-4 center Chris Koumadje and 6-10 forward Mfiondu Kabengele lied in wait at the heart of Florida State’s defense. Koumadje blocked Morant on a layup attempt in the first half and he wasn’t shy about expressing his excitement about the rejection but when they met on the way to the rim in the second half, it was Morant who skied to the basket, absorbed contact, hung in the air and banked in a tough shot through contact.
However, Morant was just 3-of-8 at the rim in the game and 0-for-7 in the mid-range.
Florida State’s size and depth is a problem for almost every team in the country. As a reminder, the Seminoles are 16-2 since January 22 with their only losses coming to North Carolina on the road and Duke in the ACC Tournament.
But Florida State’s absurd level of depth was as clear as ever against the do-it-all Morant and the Racers.
The Seminoles had 47 bench points, led by Kabengele’s 22, compared to the Racers’ six.
At one point midway through the second half, Florida State’s 12th man, 6-8 sophomore Wyatt Wilkes blocked Gilmore, then hit an unlikely step-back jumper a minute later.
Murray State’s bench had only scored two points at the time.
For many casual college basketball fans, the Ja Morant experience was a teaser trailer – one that captivated the country Thursday afternoon and exited just two days later – rather than a full-fledged blockbuster film.
But the 2019 NCAA Tournament was absolutely better because the late-blooming dynamo at Murray State carried his Racers to an Ohio Valley Conference Tournament title, which allowed him to captivate the nation for the first weekend of March Madness.