2019 NCAA Tournament: Ja Morant was like a comet reminding us that college basketball can still produce the incredible
Even if the NBA one-and-done rule goes away, stories like Morant will still be possible, which is terrific
HARTFORD, Conn. -- As he made his way from the postgame press conference back to the locker room, name placard poking out of his shorts right pocket, Ja Morant allowed himself to smile.
It was a happy contrast from some 20 minutes before, when the 19-year-old point guard phenom veiled his head entirely with a towel on the bench and found himself consoled by his coach, Matt McMahon. McMahon pulled his starters with 1:35 remaining in the team's season and, without question, Morant's college career. TV cameras caught Morant, tongue out, welling up just before the final buzzer.
No. 12 seed Murray State's 90-62 loss Saturday night at the hands of No. 3 seed Florida State was a harsh way for his college career to end, but no player did more for his school and himself over the past four months than the spindly, jaw-dropping jumping Ja flash than he.
"I feel like it was an opportunity for us to show the world what we're capable of," Morant said in the locker room of this team's bright but brief flash with NCAA Tournament greatness.
This was a night that made him run the emotional gamut, and it was a harsh, devastating end to what could obviously but accurately be defined as a dream season.
"I was just hurt not being able to take the floor with these guys for the rest of this season, for another game, or possibly two, three, four," Morant said of his moment with McMahon. "But it's been a great season. I really was just thinking back on what all we have accomplished this year. And I'd say I was more hurt by not being able to play with these guys for the remainder of the season."
Morant and Murray State became the top topic of the first Thursday of the NCAA Tournament. Sometimes these stories crash quickly, though. For as magnetizing as Morant was even in the first 10 minutes of Saturday's game, when it seemed like we could be in for a classic, Florida State soon put an end to the best feel-good story of this year's Big Dance.
"They've been very easy to coach, a very close-knit group," McMahon said. "Going to practice every day, it's been a lot of fun, so you want to keep playing. It's tough. And you hate for it to end that way. I mean, we got whipped. That's the bottom line."
The Seminoles, a poor shooting team from 3-point range this season (33.4 percent), made 11 of their first 22 3-pointers and wound up putting on maybe their best single half of basketball of the year. By the time the game was 20 minutes in, FSU had 50 points and was on pace for its highest-scoring game of the season. It settled for 90, marking the third time this season the Seminoles hit that mark, as they advanced to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season.
Murray State was rocked. It crashed the Dance and then the Dance crashed right back.
"We've been fifth in the country this year in 2-point percentage, up around 58 percent," McMahon said. "They've been one of the top teams defending the 2-point shot. And they just made it extremely difficult on us to finish plays around the basket."
Maybe it was going to end in a loss, but it wasn't supposed to end like this. The way this game was won was not predictable. Florida State didn't stop Morant so much as it wound up dominating Murray State in general. Morant finished with 28 points, five rebounds, four assists and was 5 for 6 from 3-point range.
"I've been seeing a lot of defensive schemes all season," Morant said. "They just played great defense tonight."
This is lost in the rubble of a 28-point defeat, but Morant did cement himself as an all-timer at the college level. He finishes his sophomore season as the only player in men's Division I history to average at least 20 points and 10 assists (24.5 ppg, 10.03 apg).
It's an amazing achievement, the kind of thing that will probably be near the top of his résumé for the rest of his basketball career and something that's referenced annually from now until whenever the next person is able to match it. It took nearly 40 years after assists became an official stat for someone to do it, though; maybe we'll wait decades to see it again.
On Saturday, Morant again looked to be on his way to another historic NCAA performance. After logging just the ninth official triple-double in tournament history vs. Marquette, he opened the game by hitting his first five 3-point attempts and singlehandedly kept Murray State out in front.
But FSU's size, length, athleticism and aberrational hot streak from beyond the arc ended all of it. We push forward without a Loyola-Chicago in 2019. Murray State would've been a fun, fascinating Sweet 16 invitee, but that's to take nothing away from a talented Seminoles team that will beat any team in its path if it can mimic this performance going forward.
But as for Morant, here's what sticks out to me in the immediate wake of this loss: The fact that even if the NBA's age minimum goes back to 18 years old, stories like Ja Morant are possible. They may be rare, but they are not going extinct. To go to an Ohio Valley school and jump from potential first round pick to top-three lock in the course of a season is an awesome story, something only college basketball can provide.
And provide again it will, even if the NBA's enabling of the one-and-done goes away. Morant the player is unique but Morant the story is repeatable.
"This has been a special year, not only on the court but off the court, for our program," McMahon told CBS Sports. "Because of the impact Ja's had and because of the success of our team, these guys have been great ambassadors for Murray State University, for the Murray, Kentucky, community. ... A couple people asked in the media, 'You know, how difficult has it been? With all the exposure, the NBA, the media?' It's been easy. It's been an easy year because of Ja's humility, because he's all about the team, because he has a great support system with his family at home, because he's about the right things. It's just been a lot of fun, is what it's been. It's been an absolute blast."
Murray State won 54 of its last 65 games with Morant and, yeah, a lot of other really good players as well. Shaq Buchanan, Tevin Brown, Darnell Cowart, Jonathan Stark, Terrell Miller and plenty of others. It was Stark who, selflessly, walked into McMahon's office the first week Morant was on campus and told him that this young kid was the team's point guard -- for now and the future.
That's where Morant's story really began.
"We have a very special group," Morant said. "And since Day One, we came in and worked and I felt like that's when I knew this would be a special season for us and it turned out good."
Forty-two of those 54 wins were by double-digits.
"Once in a lifetime thing," Buchanan said. "I enjoyed the journey with him (Morant). It's a brotherhood, he'll be my brother forever."
After media availability wrapped, Morant dipped into the entryway of the arena near the Murray State locker room. His teammates were collecting up all the NCAA Tournament trinkets and memorabilia they could, to materialize the memories. Morant waited until the media timeout of the Purdue-Villanova game and then emerged from the tunnel and made his way to a young boy, Nash, and gave him the shoes he wore that night. They were signed.
As he did this, the section around him realized what was happening.
"Ja! Ja! JA!!!" boys, girls -- even grown men -- began to yell.
Morant posed for a couple pictures, then made his way out of the XL Center one more time. A few hundred people gave him a standing ovation as he did so and as he gave a few more high-fives. They knew they watched someone special.
Then the young man who might well become one of the faces of the NBA in a few years' time dipped back into the bowels of the arena and quietly roamed with his teammates into the cold, to the bus, with lord knows how much potential ahead of him.
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