HARTFORD, Conn. — The game was in hand for Murray State and sensational point guard Ja Morant, who dominated Marquette in every way. With a chance to make some NCAA Tournament history, Morant’s coach told him to hit the boards and grab the rebound that would push him to an elusive triple-double.
Morant went up for the ball, snatched it away from an eager teammate, and that was it. Murray State fans began chanting “Tri-ple dou-ble!” to celebrate an upset in the first round of the West Region.
Morant, a future NBA lottery pick, sliced through Marquette with 17 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds as Murray State trounced the fifth-seeded Golden Eagles, 83-64, on Thursday.
The triple-double was the ninth in the tournament since the NCAA started tracking them in 1987 and first since 2012. Murray State (28-4) continued a trend of 12 seeds beating 5s in March. It has happened every year but three since 2001, but this looked nothing like an upset.
Murray State was never threatened in the second half by Marquette. The Ohio Valley Conference champion Racers face fourth-seeded Florida State on Saturday in the West Region as the Racers next try to take down an Atlantic Coast Conference foe.
Murray State, with Morant in its lineup, almost always can count on having the best player on the floor no matter who its plays.
“They’d be good without him, but with him, they’re pretty unique,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said.
With 4 minutes, 36 seconds left in the second half and Murray State up 20, Morant grabbed his 10th rebound, pulling it away from Racers big man KJ Williams.
“I was going for it. I called it, and he still tried to get the rebound. I just snatched it and said, ‘It’s my ball,’ ” Morant said with a smile. “Normally, before the game, I tell him that every ball that goes toward the rim needs to be his. Just attack the glass. Sorry, I had to take that one from him.”
The last player to record a triple-double in the NCAA Tournament was Draymond Green for Michigan State in 2012 against LIU-Brooklyn.
The lanky 6-foot-2 Morant this season has rocketed to stardom and into a sure-fire NBA lottery pick — maybe second only to Duke’s Zion Williamson. He exceeded the hype on the biggest stage he has played on this season.
The game was billed as a showcase of two of the nation’s best point guards, and Morant and Marquette’s Markus Howard delivered plenty of highlights. Howard scored 16 in the first half on a mix of 3s off screens and hard drives to the hoop.
Marquette (24-10) promised to make Morant see walls of defenders. The Golden Eagles collapsed on Morant every time he went to the basket and often double-teamed on the perimeter instead of switching on screens. Time and again, Morant found an open shooter while surrounded by defenders. He had eight assists in the first half, five that led to 3-pointers for the Racers, who led 42-35 at the break.
“Sometimes he surprises me when he gets to the goal and gets everybody to jump and he still finds a way to get the ball to us,” said Tevin Brown, who scored 19 points.
Howard finished with 26 points, and Sam Hauser added 16 for the Golden Eagles.
As Murray State pulled away early in the second half, Morant had a two-handed slam off a nifty bounce pass from Darnell Cowart. Moments later, Morant fired a cross-court, no-look pass to Shaq Buchanan for a corner 3 that made it 57-40. Morant paused to glance toward the Murray State section and made finger goggles around his eyes. The sophomore seems to see it all on the court.
Morant said he’d rather be a playmaker than a finisher.
“Any day of the week; I’ll take the assist 10 time out of 10,” Morant said.