Morant's magic on display in Murray State's upset win at XL Center

Hartford — After a dazzling and dominating performance Thursday, Murray State's Ja Morant walked off the XL Center court to a well-deserved standing ovation.

The enthusiastic applause may continue until Morant's next March Madness appearance on Saturday.

Morant Magic happened in the NCAA tournament first round before an appreciative crowd of 14,838 fans.

A contender for several national awards, Morant put on a show, finishing with 17 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds while leading 12th-seeded Murray State to an 83-64 upset of fifth-seeded Marquette.

He's the eighth player to record a triple-double in the NCAA tournament since 1984. It's his third this season.

"It was a lot of fun just being able to go out with this group of guys and get a win in the tournament," Morant said. "It just feels good."

It sure wasn't fun for Marquette, which only could helplessly watch Morant dissect its defense. A seven-point halftime lead grew to 20 when Morant shifted into supersonic gear.

"Ja Morant makes a lot of plans look bad," Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. "I've been in this for awhile. He's as good as any guard I've coached against and played against. ... The best thing about the kid is his decision-making. You're talking about an elite, elite decision-maker, who's got elite athleticism. ... He makes everyone around him better."

It's hard to single out Morant's top highlight because the superb sophomore had so many of them.

There were a number of brilliant no-look passes to set up a teammate ... or when he cut to the basket, received a pass and elevated over Marquette's Joey Hauser for an emphatic two-handed slam dunk in the second half.

The first day that Morant, who's from Ray Allen's high school hometown of Dalzell, S.C., stepped on the Murray State campus, coach Matt McMahon knew he had a future star.

"He's just got some special intangibles to him and in addition to his athleticism, the explosiveness, and ridiculous court vision and feel for the game," McMahon said. "He's got an unselfishness and competitiveness about him that's been contagious with our program and in our locker room.

"... He comes from an incredible family. He has a great support system. And he hasn't changed one bit through all the media hype, all the NBA hype. He's just stayed focused."

Pre-game buzz focused on the intriguing match-up between Morant, the Ohio Valley Conference's top player, and Marquette's Markus Howard, the Big East player of the year.

Morant won the head-to-head battle, hands down.

Howard, a junior guard who scored a Big East record 53 points earlier this season, tried to match Morant. But Murray State forced Howard to work hard for open shots. While Howard finished with a game-high 26 points, he went 9 for 27 from the field, 4 for 14 from three.

Both players entered the game with some impressive statistics — Morant averaged 24.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 10 assists while Howard checked in at 25 points, four rebounds and four assists.

Howard is a lethal scorer, but Morant is a more dynamic all-around player.

With Murray State in command late in the second half, the crowd began the Morant countdown. When Morant grabbed his 10th rebound to secure his triple-double, fans roared their approval.

Morant had long silenced the Marquette crowd, especially the ones that chanted, "Over-rated, Over-rated," when the Murray State star stepped to the foul line.

He had plenty of help from his teammates, as Tevin Brown (19 points), K.J. Williams (16) and Shaq Buchanan (14) also scored in double figures.

"I was saying it all year, Ja deserves every bit of the credit he gets and then some," McMahon said. "But we have a very balanced team."

The Racers (28-4) will face fourth-seeded Florida State (28-7), a 76-69 winner over Vermont in the opening game, in Saturday's second round.

Morant will continue to just try to have fun and enjoy playing with this teammates.

"I really don't play too much attention to the hype," he said. "I just try to go out and play the same  game every night. Just try to do whatever I can to help my team come out with a win."

g.keefe@theday.com

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