HARTFORD, Conn. — Reality, that prude, rolled in giant waves over Murray State here Saturday evening. It harrumphed at one of the two most compelling players in this NCAA tournament, the ingenious Ja Morant, sending him off the stage where he sparkled, 95 seconds to the end of the kind of 90-62 rout where the benches empty so the subs can appear. It sent his charismatic face beneath a towel for a good long while as Coach Matt McMahon knelt before him to say, essentially, “Thank you.”
“I’d say I was just hurt not being able to take the floor with these guys for the rest of the season, for another game or possibly two, three, four,” Morant said even after closing with 28 points, four assists, five rebounds and one broken heart, which he tweeted.
Yet it did impress, this reality from the highbrow ACC. It came in the form of a deep and deeply collaborative Florida State team that could win this tournament if it plays as it did in concluding Murray State’s wondrous season. With a will born of respect for its opponent and an intent to honor senior Phil Cofer’s father, Mike Cofer, the former NFL player who died Thursday, West Region No. 4 seed Florida State added a further dimension to its collection of length and skill.
This 33.4 percent three-point shooting team shot 8 for 14 in the first half, zooming to a 50-34 lead and upholding what Coach Leonard Hamilton said when he described Mike Cofer and then said, “And I thought that our kids tonight decided that’s what we wanted to play for, something bigger than ourselves and something bigger than the game.” Such shooting atop the paint play and rebounding already established in a season now standing at 29-7 — and 16-2 since January — threatened to divert the attention of several Tallahasseeans from spring football while sapping much of the electricity from the building here.
That electricity came largely from Morant, the first player in NCAA history to average 20-plus points and 10-plus assists over a season (allowing for the fact that nobody bothered to count assists officially until 1983-84). He had wowed downtown Hartford on Thursday with his line in the No. 12 seed’s 83-64 romp through No. 5 Marquette: 17 points, 16 assists, 11 rebounds, all with the know-how to take only nine shots.
Before he made off probably for the NBA to treat the big-city fans to his complete delights, the wiry 6-foot-3 South Carolina native once under-recruited left a string of goodies for those at XL Center. Early on, he rained three-point shots on Florida State, and after he used a startling lateral move on the perimeter to position himself for the third one, he ran back down the court yelling, “Oh, my god! Oh, my god!” As the Murray State quadrant in from extreme western Kentucky boomed its cheers, he exclaimed, “I know!”
In studying film, Hamilton said, “We came to the conclusion that Morant was almost basically unguardable. So we had to make sure we defended the other guys that fed off him. And we worked hard to make him earn all his baskets.” That’s how the game looked from there.
Passing lanes looked clogged. The sky above the players seemed to change, with 7-foot-4 Christ Koumadje and others altering shots. Passes that work for the Ohio Valley Conference co-champions for much of the season got gobbled up in the Seminoles’ length. After an early gasp of a pass from half-court that set up Shaq Buchanan for a layup, Morant would accrue only three more assists.
His shots often came up or rolled up just shy of the mark as he finished 8 for 21, so an audience seeking bedazzlement had to settle for such only here and there. At one point in the second half, he eschewed an open three-point shot in the corner to drive in, challenge the giant Koumadje, direct a layup around him and draw a foul. Finally, his 331st assist of the season came with 3:20 left, and with 1:43 left, he made a beautiful drive that covered half the floor and went through three defenders for a layup that would figure to have closed his collegiate career.
Eight seconds later, he went off, hugging everyone in the line before taking to the bench under the towel, before walking to the corner to cheer on one last three-point attempt by a teammate. It missed.
His Murray State had gone down to a team that plays by airtight defense and scoring by committee, that got 22 points from Mfiondu Kabengele and 18 from Terance Mann but had 10 players scoring. Mostly, it had thwarted Morant’s favorite endeavor, the assist, an ending sort of unfitting until he sat at his locker and, asked how he would like to be remembered at Murray State, said, “What kind of teammate I was.”