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  • Ja Morant couldn't push Murray State to the Sweet 16, but he did get the platform he deserves before heading for the NBA.
By Laken Litman
March 23, 2019

HARTFORD, Conn. — The towel draped over Ja Morant’s head meant one thing: The greatest show going in the 2019 NCAA tournament was over. Florida State bullied Murray State 90–62 in the second round on Saturday evening, capping an incredible season with a painful finish.

All good things must come to an end. But as Morant sat on the bench over the final minute of the game—and almost certainly the final minute of his college career, with the NBA dead ahead—his mind raced.

“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. “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’s run through March was the epitome of short and sweet. It lasted two games, but it included a triple double, a show-stopping dunk, comparisons to Magic Johnson and a new record. In Saturday’s loss, he became the first player to average at least 20 points and 10 assists per game in a season since the NCAA started tracking assists in 1983–84. He quickly became the sensation of the tournament, and his performances garnered direct messages from future professional peers, like fellow wunderkinds Luka Dončić and Patrick Mahomes.

Although Morant wishes more than anything that he could have helped take his team deeper into the tournament and extended the season, his impact will be felt at Murray State for a long time.

“Greatest player of all time, wouldn’t you say?” said junior forward Darnell Cowart. “His legacy, I don’t think it will ever be matched.”

Morant wouldn’t directly address his future or put a timetable on when he might announce that he’s entering the NBA draft. He’s a consensus top-three pick in most circles, but he said he’s not focused on that right now because he just wants to celebrate “a wonderful season with my teammates.” He hopes when people think about his two-year career at Murray State, they’ll remember him not for his vicious dunks or raw athleticism, but for something more meaningful.

“I know fans can’t see what kind of teammate I was, but they can see what kind of person I was, and I want to be remembered by that,” Morant said. He seems to have achieved that so far. The crowd at the XL Center gave him a standing ovation as the Racers left the floor. Morant didn’t even notice—he was trying to keep his teammates’ heads up after a devastating two hours of basketball.

Murray State hadn’t lost a game since a Jan. 31 trip to Jacksonville State. “We kind of forgot what the feeling feels like,” Morant said. But the Racers were confident they could hang with Florida State, despite some obvious disadvantages. First, there was the size mismatch—the Seminoles were physically superior in every way. That was obvious from the start, when 7'4" senior center Christ Koumadje barely jumped to win the opening tip over Murray State’s 6'8" freshman forward KJ Williams. FSU has seven players 6'8" or taller on its roster and no player shorter than 6'4".

“Their length bothered us in all three levels,” Cowart said.

Murray State found some early success by getting out in transition, but it didn’t last long. Florida State created separation with the three ball, making 8-of-11 to start and finishing the night 11-of-27 from beyond the arc. The Racers went into this game as the fourth-best team in the country defending three-point field goals (28.9%), but stops were hard to come by. The Seminoles also had a major edge in rebounds (45–33), points in the paint (44–26) and bench scoring (47–6).

After Murray State’s first-round win over Marquette on Thursday, Morant told reporters, “Obviously, I can’t win the game by myself.” He was proven right against Florida State.

He did not approach a second tournament triple double, but he did score 28 points, aided by a 5-for-5 start from three-point range, with five rebounds, four assists (his second-lowest total this season), two steals and a block. On Thursday, Murray State had 23 assists and 13 turnovers; against Florida State, it had seven assists and 13 turnovers. Morant didn’t feel like he was having a hard time creating opportunities, but Murray State just couldn’t make enough plays.

“We took some great shots, but they just rimmed out,” Morant said. “If I pass the ball and a shot rims out, I can’t have an assist. I’ve been seeing a lot of defensive schemes all season. They just played great defense tonight.”

So ends Morant’s college career. While he sat on the bench pondering the things he’ll miss now that the year is over—he admitted it will be “awhile” before he gets over this one, probably not until he gets back in the gym—coach Matt McMahon knelt beside him. McMahon said he thanked him for what he’s done for the program, the university and the community.

“You don’t ever want the season to end,” McMahon said. “Especially when you’ve had a special group like this.”

And especially when you’ve had a once-in-a-lifetime player like Morant.

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