• Murray State sophomore guard Ja Morant was the day’s star, with 17 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds. It was the tournament’s first triple-double since Draymond Green for Michigan State in 2012.
• There were no buzzer-beaters, and the day’s best endings came on missed shots. Maryland survived against Belmont, 79-77, and Auburn held off New Mexico State, 78-77.
Ja Morant is your breakout performer, and then some
On an opening day of the NCAA tournament that mostly lacked the kind of last-second shots or bracket-destroying upsets that have come to define the event, it was left to Temetrius Jamel “Ja” Morant to do much of the heavy lifting. Murray State’s sophomore guard gave Thursday both its most unlikely result, at least in terms of seeding, and by far its greatest individual performance, with a triple-double of historic proportions.
By racking up 17 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds, Morant not only led the way for his No. 12 Racers to oust No. 5 Marquette — the only other double-digit teams to win on Thursday were a pair of major-conference 10 seeds in Florida and Minnesota — but notched just the eighth NCAA tournament triple-double since assists became an official statistic in 1983-84, and the first since Draymond Green had one for Michigan State in 2012.
Among Morant’s other noteworthy accomplishments Thursday were (via ESPN):
- First player with 15 points and 15 assists in a tournament game since 2000 (UCLA’s Earl Watson).
- Most points created (55) in a tournament game in the past 10 years.
- Second-most assists in a tournament game (UNLV’s Mark Wade had 18 in 1987).
- Second 15-point, 15-assist, 10-rebound performance in a regular or postseason game in the past years.
In other words: Your move, Zion Williamson. Duke’s superstar freshman, the talk of college basketball all season, makes his NCAA tournament debut Friday and has some catching up to do in the well-that-was-crazy department. Oh, and at this point, Williamson may be the only player we can still be sure will be selected ahead of Morant in June’s NBA draft.
Of course, Williamson’s Blue Devils teammate, RJ Barrett and others, including Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver, will also have some say in who makes the biggest early impression (and who goes where in the draft). But on Thursday, the stage belonged to Morant, and he took full advantage.
Syracuse’s zone normally gives opponents all sorts of problems, but you’d never know that from Baylor’s performance Thursday. The Bears strafed the Orange by making 53.8 percent of their shots from the field, including 16 of 34 from three-point range, and they’ll have every reason to bring confidence into an otherwise rough-looking matchup with the West Region’s top seed, Gonzaga.
Syracuse matched Baylor bomb-for-bomb in a first half that featured 19 combined threes and left the Orange trailing by just a point. Syracuse did what it could to hang around in the second frame, and it was only down by three with as many minutes left, but Baylor’s leading scorer, Makai Mason, had six of his 22 points down the stretch to help seal the win.
Syracuse’s Elijah Hughes scored a game-high 25 points for Syracuse, which was playing without senior point guard Frank Howard, who was suspended the day before. Baylor, which also benefited from a combined 27 points from Jared Butler and Mario Kegler, easily topped the previous school record of 11 three-pointers in a tournament game.
A game that was nip-and-tuck took a turn with just over four minutes left, when Wofford went on a 17-0 run to leave Seton Hall behind. The Pirates scored on a dunk to halt the bleeding with 27 seconds left, but that did little to stop the celebration on the Terriers’ sideline of the first NCAA tournament win in program history.
Not surprisingly, senior sharpshooter Fletcher Magee, the Southern Conference player of the year, led the way with 24 points. He hit 7 of 12 three-point attempts and broke the Division 1 career record for makes from long range, while Seton Hall star Myles Powell was outstanding in the loss, scoring 27 points with no teammate joining him in double figures.
With the triumph, Wofford extended the nation’s longest win streak to 21 games. The Terriers will take on No. 2 Kentucky in a Midwest Region second-round matchup.
The term “survive and advance” often gets bandied about this time of year, and certainly Purdue fans would not be blamed for muttering that after seeing their third-seeded squad win in decidedly ugly fashion against 14th-seeded Old Dominion. The Boilermakers shot 37.7 percent from the field, but that was more than enough to stay ahead of the Monarchs, who hit just 18 of 67 shots, including 6 of 25 three-point attempts.
Junior guard Carsen Edwards led Purdue and all scorers with 26 points, albeit on just 7-of-23 shooting, while the bulk of ODU’s scoring was submitted by senior guard Ahmad Caver (19 points) and senior guard B.J. Stith (14). On a day when the Big Ten went 5-0, Purdue advanced to a South Region matchup with No. 3 Villanova.
In an unusual rematch, Michigan notched a somewhat easier win over Montana than in 2018, when the two teams also squared off in the first round of the NCAA tournament. This time, the Wolverines built a fairly comfortable bulge in the first half, rather than the second, although history repeated itself in the form of Michigan’s Charles Matthews, who again led all scorers.
Matthews had 22 points, two better than last year’s tally, and three other Wolverines scored on double figures. For Montana, Sayeed Pridgett posted 17 points, but while he was 8 for 16 from the field, the Grizzlies’ other four starters combined to go 9 of 35. Michigan moves on in the West Region to game against No. 10 Florida.
Magee sets a new standard
Wofford’s Fletcher Magee broke the NCAA Division 1 record for three-pointers in the Terriers’ first-round game against Seton Hall. With a shot from behind the arc less than a minute into the second half, Magee notched his 505th career three, passing the previous record held by Oakland’s Travis Bader, who played until the 2013-14 season. The Wofford fans in the arena, aware of Magee’s accomplishment, responded with a loud ovation.
Magee, a senior guard from Orlando, scored 24 points in the 84-68 Wofford win, shooting 7 of 12 from three, bringing his total to 509 threes with at least one more game to play.
Special moment for senior in blowout loss
The fact that his team was down by a big margin did not prevent Nadi Beciri from enjoying a big moment. The Fairleigh Dickinson senior, who hadn’t played since mid-November after suffering an injury just two games into the season, was inserted late into the Knights’ 87-49 loss to top-seeded Gonzaga.
Beciri made the most of his brief time on the floor, taking a pass with under a minute left and hitting a layup for the game’s final two points. He immediately headed to the sideline and got an emphatic hug from FDU head coach Greg Herenda.
Herenda was pleased with the overall spirit shown Thursday by his 16th-seeded team, which needed to win a play-in game Tuesday evening just for the right to face the Bulldogs and did not get into Salt Lake City until the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
“Our goal was to win the second half, and we lost by two points,” Herenda said. "That might seem trivial, but we don’t quit. … We know you have to get off the canvas and fight, even if you know you’re not going to win.”
Villanova nearly had its dreams of a third national title in four years quickly derailed, but managed to get past Saint Marys in a low-scoring contest. The Wildcats leaned on their two senior leaders, Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, both veterans of the championship squads who scored 20 and 14 points, respectively.
“That was a tough one,” Villanova Coach Jay Wright said after the game, praising Saint Mary’s as “well-coached, disciplined, intelligent” team. Sophomore forward Malik Fitts and junior guard Jordan Ford led the Gaels with 13 points each, but they and their teammates were unable to repeat the feat Saint Mary’s pulled off in 2010 when it bounced Villanova from the tournament.
Wright kept his rotation as tight as the score for most of the 40 minutes, bringing just two players off the bench, while 10 players saw action for the Gaels. Next up for Villanova is a South Region matchup with the winner of a game between No. 3 Purdue and No. 14 Old Dominion.
Fairleigh Dickinson entered Thursday on something of a roll, having beaten Prairie View A&M Tuesday in a play-in game that earned it the right to face top-seeded Gonzaga. The Bulldogs wasted no time snuffing out the Knights’ hopes to keep things rolling with what would have been a shocking result, taking a 53-17 lead halftime and never looking back.
Coming off a loss to Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference title game nine days ago, the Bulldogs looked like a squad more than ready to taste victory again, with star forward Rui Hachimura topping all scorers with 21 points while adding eight rebounds. Gonzaga awaits the winner of a West Region game between No. 8 Syracuse and No. 9 Baylor.
It got tense toward the end, but Florida was able to stave off a Nevada rally and close out the second upset in as many 10 seed-7 seed games thus far, following Minnesota’s ouster of Louisville. A balanced effort saw all five of the Gators’ starters score at least eight points, with senior forward Kevarrius Hayes leading the way with 16, albeit on 3-of-14 shooting.
Florida made just 5 of 18 three-pointers, but the Wolfpack was worse, missing 19 of 24 from beyond the arc. Nevada was paced by twin brothers Cody and Caleb Martin with 24 and 19 points, respectively. But the latter sibling, his team’s leading scorer, hit just 5 of 22 field goal attempts.
The result knocked out a popular sleeper pick to represent the West Region in the Final Four, but Nevada had shown signs of vulnerability. After starting the season with 24 wins in its first 25 games, the Wolfpack lost four of its final nine.
The score going into the game, in terms of all-time NCAA tournament appearances, was Kentucky 58, No. 15 Abilene Christian 1. What the scoreboard showed after the schools’ Midwest Region tilt was only a little less lopsided, with Kentucky taking a 26-point halftime lead and cruising to the win.
Playing without star forward PJ Washington, who was nursing an injured foot, Kentucky got 25 points from freshman Keldon Johnson, 18 from senior Reid Travis and 14 from freshman Tyler Herro. ACU was led by senior Jaren Lewis’s 17 points, with no one else in double figures. Kentucky will next face the winner of a game between No. 7 Wofford and No. 10 Seton Hall.
Empty seats for start of Villanova-Saint Mary’s
There weren’t many fans on hand for the start of the South region matchup between No. 6 Villanova and No. 11 Saint Mary’s. Or, to be more precise, there were plenty of fans, it was just that most of them were still trying to get into the XL Center in Hartford, Conn.
The cause of the unusually quiet first-half scene was the fact that the game kicked off the second session of NCAA contests at the arena, and the NCAA sells tickets separately for the sessions and mandates that everyone leave after the first. Given that the second game of the initial session, Murray State’s West Region win over Marquette, didn’t end until almost 7 p.m. with Villanova-Saint Mary’s scheduled to tip off at 7:20 — it was pushed back to 7:50 in a nod to the problematic situation — that didn’t leave much time for thousands of fans to be replaced by thousands of others.
Family tragedy for Florida State player
After No. 4 Florida State’s win over No. 13 Vermont Thursday, Seminoles forward Phil Cofer learned that his father had passed away. An FSU spokesman said (via ESPN) that Cofer got the news in a phone call placed to the locker room, and he was moved to a more remote area where he was consoled by teammates, coaches and other Seminoles personnel.
Cofer did not play in the game because of a foot injury, and it was not immediately clear if he would be with the team for its second-round matchup Saturday against Murray State. His father, Mike Cofer, was a former NFL linebacker who was said to have been dealing with an extended illness before passing away at 58.
Ja Morant is not your average college basketball player, and his Murray State squad showed that it may not be your average No. 12 seed. The Racers began pulling away from the Golden Eagles just before halftime, with Morant notching a rare NCAA men’s tournament triple-double (more on that below) with 17 points, 11 rebounds and 16 assists. Murray State’s Tevin Brown chipped in with a team-high scored 19 points. Marquette was led, as it so often was this season, by Markus Howard, whose 26 points were one more than his season average.
Next up for the Racers is Florida State, the No. 4 seed in the West Region which topped No. 13 Vermont in its first-round matchup.
Triple-double for Ja Morant
No, Ja Morant was not overrated, as chants by Marquette fans would have it. The Murray State star, expected to be a very high pick in the upcoming NBA draft, notched a triple-double against the Golden Eagles with 19 points, 12 rebounds and 16 assists in an easy win for his Racers.
The effort is believed to be the eighth triple-double in NCAA tournament history, and it was the first since Draymond Green posted a 23-11-10 line for Michigan State in a 2011 loss to UCLA.
Kansas had an unusually frustrating regular season, failing to win the Big 12 title for the first time in 15 years before falling in the conference tournament final to Iowa State. The Jayhawks appeared to take out some of those frustrations on Northeastern, swatting aside the CAA champions with a dominant second half. Four players scored in double figures for Kansas, led by junior forward Dedric Lawson’s 25 points, while junior guard Jordan Roland paced Northeastern with 12 points.
With the win, the Jayhawks extended their streak of winning at least one NCAA tournament game to 13 years. Kansas moves on to face No. 5 Auburn, which squeaked past No. 12 New Mexico State earlier in the day, in a Midwest Region second-round game.
Bradley had the Spartans worried early. The Braves went to the half leading by one and hung around most of the second half, opening up a five-point lead in the early going. But Michigan State responded with a 13-2 run to pull ahead and regain some confidence. The Braves came back with a run of their own to retake the lead, but the Spartans scored eight straight points and never looked back to avoid the upset.
Maryland’s dubious streak is over. The Terrapins hadn’t won a postseason game in three years, but stormed back to beat Belmont on Thursday behind a gritty second half and their two power forwards on the block. Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith combined for 37 points and 25 rebounds.
Down 67-60 with 7 minutes to play, Maryland outscored the Bruins, 19-10, down the stretch. Junior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr., struggled to 3-of-19 shooting, including 1-of-11 from three-point range, but hit that only three-pointer with 4 minutes to play to tie the game at 71. Darryl Morsell spun in a layup while being fouled a minute later to put the Terps up three, and Maryland never gave up the lead.
The Terrapins will next face LSU, which defeated Yale earlier Thursday, in the round of 32.
The Seminoles weathered a bumpy start to sprint past the Catamounts in the second half. Vermont put four scorers in double figures, but Florida State responded with 21 points and 8 rebounds off the bench from big man Mfiondu Kabengele and 19 points from starter Terance Mann. The Seminoles will face the winner of No. 5 seed Marquette and No. 12 seed Murray State in the West Region.
Auburn seemingly did everything it could to hand this game to New Mexico State, but made one too many free throws down the stretch for the Aggies to overcome. Up seven points with less than a minute to play, New Mexico State whittled the lead to one point with 29 seconds left on Trevelin Queen’s deep three-pointer.
Auburn went up four with 12 seconds to play, but JoJo Zamora nailed another three to the cut the lead back down to one. Samir Doughty made one free throw for the Tigers with six seconds left to make it a two-point margin, but the Aggies got another chance when Terrell Brown was fouled on a three-pointer with less than two seconds left. He only converted one of three foul shots but that still wasn’t it, as the ball went out of bounds off Auburn. Queen got open on the inbounds play for one last three-pointer from the corner but missed badly at the buzzer, allowing Auburn, the Southeastern Conference champion, to hang on.
No. 3 seed LSU’s whirlwind season continues after withstanding a late rally from Yale, 79-74. The season began with the death of junior forward Wayde Sims, who was shot during a late-night altercation on Sept. 28. The Tigers will finish their season without Coach Will Wade, who has been suspended by the university in the midst of a recruiting scandal. The Tigers are now 2-1 under interim coach Tony Benford, who has previous head coaching experience at North Texas.
Four Tigers scored in double figures on Thursday, including a team-high 19 points from Skylar Mays and double-doubles from Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams. Alex Copeland led Yale with a game-high 24 points.
No NCAA tournament team this season averaged fewer three-pointers than Minnesota, which came into Thursday’s March Madness opener against Louisville making only 5.2 shots from long distance per game.
But the 10th-seeded Golden Gophers topped that paltry total by halftime, making six over the game’s first 20 minutes and finishing with 11 in a relatively comfortable 86-76 win over No. 7 Louisville in Des Moines.
Gabe Kalscheur, the only reliable three-point shooter in Minnesota’s main rotation this season, led the way as usual with five three-pointers and finished with 24 points. Big man Jordan Murphy, who entered the game with only six three-pointers on the season, made two of his three attempts.
The win must have been especially satisfying for Minnesota Coach Richard Pitino, and not only because it was his first career NCAA tournament win and the program’s first in six seasons. Pitino’s father, Rick, was fired by Louisville 18 months ago over his alleged role in the federal investigation into college basketball recruiting (currently coaching a Greek pro team, the elder Pitino was not in attendance Thursday).
Schedule and results
- No. 10 Florida 70, No. 7 Nevada 61
- No. 2 Kentucky 79, No. 15 Abilene Christian 44
- No. 6 Villanova 61, No. 11 Saint Mary’s 57
- No. 1 Gonzaga 87, No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson 49
- No. 2 Michigan 74, No. 15 Montana 55
- No. 7 Wofford 84, No. 10 Seton Hall 68
- No. 3 Purdue 61, No. 14 Old Dominion 48
- No. 9 Baylor 78, No. 8 Syracuse 69