The first day of the 2019 men's NCAA tournament belonged to Ja Morant.
Murray State's sophomore point guard, who up to that point was mostly only seen on Twitter timelines and nightly highlight shows while games featuring larger basketball programs filled national telecasts, finally got the chance to show the sports world what he can do for a full game.
And what he can do, turns out, is something that only seven other players have officially accomplished in the history of the March Madness men's tournament. In the Racers' 12-over-5 upset win over Marquette, Morant recorded a triple-double in one of the most dominant, cohesive, and controlled displays in recent March memory.
His stat line: 17 points, 16 assists, 11 rebounds
The final score: No. 12 Murray State 83, No. 5 Marquette 64
This was not the "where did this kid come from?" March Madness story authored by Steph Curry and Davidson in 2008. Because of social media, a majority of college basketball fans already knew of Morant, and a good portion of them knew he was really good and really fun. Now to be fair, had Twitter and Instagram been around in 2008, Curry would have been in that same realm.
After an impressive freshman season, Morant leveled up in year two. He was named the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year. He finished the season with 24.5 points and 10 assists per game, the first player to average 20 and 10 since the NCAA began tracking assists in 1983-84. Morant totaled 331 assists on the year, the sixth-most in NCAA history. He had 15 games of 20 points & 10 assists; no other player had more than three. His rebounding actually dipped from an astounding 6.6 per game as a freshman down to 5.7 (he's only 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds, by the way). He led the nation with three triple-doubles. He was a consensus first-team All-American selection.
So while Morant's performance to open the tournament was not his introduction, it did mark his arrival. It was an announcement, an emphatic statement: Believe the hype.
When Marquette played Murray State, the Golden Eagles entered Ja's world for 40 minutes. That's right, in a tournament set to be defined by one young player from South Carolina who is easily identified by one name — Zion — there were now two.
The 12-5 matchups in the NCAA tournament are always dangerous, but because of Ja and the way his team was playing, this 12-5 game was super dangerous. Marquette had lost 5 of 6 games entering the tourney; Murray State had only lost 4 times all season and was fresh off an OVC tournament title that secured its ticket to the dance.
Because of Ja's performance, fans could be forgiven for forgetting how the matchup was initially billed: Tough Big East squad Marquette, led by one of, if not the, most prolific scorers in the nation, Markus Howard, facing off against the entertaining Morant and the upset-minded Racers.
It is a testament to how special and rare Ja's takeover was that Howard's 26 points barely even registered as an afterthought.
The Racers and Golden Eagles played on Thursday, March 21, one of 16 tournament games that day. The midwestern schools squared off at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn., roughly the same distance from each campus (15 hours in the car). But it was the game's start time that helped to turn it into a moment.
The teams tipped off at 4:30 p.m. ET, the eighth game of the day and the last one before the night slate began. As a result, it was a unique time when there was minimal action going on elsewhere, and by the second half, Ja's game was the only one on television. The skinny point guard from a mid major program was finally center stage.
And he delivered a show worthy of, at minimum, 10 encores.
Ja's triple-double by the numbers
- 17 points on only 9 shots, a model of efficiency: 5-9 FG, 2-2 3-pt FG, 5-5 FT
- 16 assists tied for most in an NCAA tournament first round game and second-most all time in the tournament
- 11 rebounds were all on the defensive end
- He had an even 8 assists in each half
- Ja's assists accounted for 38 Murray State points, including leading directly to 6 3-pointers; add in his scoring, and he accounted for a total of 55 points in the game...Marquette collectively scored 64
- He recorded 10 more assists on his own than Marquette did in the whole game (16 to 6)
- The first March Madness tripe-double by a guard since 2003 when Dwyane Wade did it for, naturally, Marquette
While watching the highlights, there are occasions when Morant drives the ball, literally draws all five defenders, disappears within them, then somehow pops the ball out to a wide-open teammate who buries a three.
"10 times out of 10," Morant said at the time to emphasize he preferred setting up a fellow Racer for a basket rather than scoring one of his own. "It feels good, but I give all the credit to my teammates because without them I wouldn't have a triple double."
It's modest and true. Yes the Murray State supporting cast threw down the easy dunks Ja's vision and facilitation created, but it also knocked down the open shots from distance that really broke Marquette's back time after time. They boxed out Marquette's big front-court bodies, which allowed Morant to fly in from the perimeter to secure rebounds, prevent second-chance opportunities, and kickstart the fast break. And it helps even more when, as noted above by his few attempts, Morant is not forcing his own shots when someone else has a better look.
"You just always have to keep your hands ready because he could make a pass at any time," Murray State guard Tevin Brown said. "Whether he's dribbling or going up for a shot, you never know when it's going to come. He could be up in the air shooting a layup and then turn and pass you the ball."
While the entire game was a moment of its own, we would be doing a disservice to the readers of this story if we did not spotlight the absolute play of the game: the thunderous two-handed tomahawk dunk that put a an innocent Golden Eagle on a poster and punctuated this matchup as the Ja Morant game.
"Honestly, if they don't know me by now, I don't know what to say," Ja concluded. "But I hope they see not just me but that Murray State is a great team, and we can run with the big dogs."