College basketball fans will be able to watch Ja Morant and the Murray State Racers play in the 2019 March Madness tournament this year after the Racers defeated Belmont 77-65 to win the OVC Tournament.
Morant, a sophomore 6-foot-3 point guard, led all scorers with 36 points. He dropped 22 points in the second half and shot 13-for-25 from the field. He hit all nine of his free throws after missing five in the semifinals.
“I was just locked in and just followed through with all my shots and was able to make them,” said Morant.
The Racers played solid defense and held Belmont to only 21.9 percent from three-point range. The victory guaranteed a spot in March Madness for Murray State.
Murray State First In
The Racers became the first team in the nation to punch their ticket to March Madness. The Racers do not have to sweat next Sunday night when official bracelets are released. Murray State and Belmont, the top teams from the OVC, were stuck in the same spot on the dreaded bubble.
The selection committee emphasizes strength of schedule. They are known to favor teams from the premier conferences like the ACC, Big Ten, and SEC. Mid-major schools, especially from the Ohio Valley Conference, do not get the same at-large love as the mid-tiered teams in the ACC.
Belmont’s head coach Rick Byrd won his 700th game recently. He knew it would come down to a showdown with Murray State for a berth to March Madness. After the loss, he hopes the selection committee throws Belmont a bone with an at-large bid.
Morant Best Show in the OVC
The Ohio Valley Conference Tournament in Evansville, Indiana saw sold out crowds. Everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of Ja Morant. He’s one of those once in a lifetime players. ACC and SEC fans are spoiled with a bevy of future NBA stars running up and down the court on any given night. However, the OVC obviously lacks the same level of talent.
It’s rare that a player of Morant’s caliber slips through the cracks, but he developed under the radar of big-time scouts. Luckily someone was paying attention. Murrary States head coach Matt McMahon knew he had a budding star the moment he saw Morant play while he was actually scouting a different player.
“We’re all about the team at Murray State,” said McMahon. “But you have to give a lot of credit to this guy. Everywhere we’ve gone, places where they have 500 people at their games brought 8,000 to come see him and our team play. This was an awesome weekend, and I can’t imagine the atmosphere being even better.”
McMahon would love if Morant stuck around another season. Mock drafts projected Morant as high as the second pick behind Zion Williamson. As one sports personality recently echoed, “Ja is the best player in America not in a Duke uniform.”
LA Lakers President Magic Johnson were among the notables in attendance at the OVC Tournament. Magic and other NBA scouts wanted to see Morant with his own eyes. They witnessed Morant Magic in the semifinals. Morant scored 29 points and hit a game-winning shot. The Racers defeat Jacksonville State by two points and moved into the OVC finals against Belmont.
Murray State went from the March Madness Bubble Watch to March Madness Upset Watch. At the least, college basketball fans will be able to see Morant play in one game.
And if he’s as good as we think he is, Morant could lead Murray State to a couple of wins and possibly a Sweet 16 berth. Runs like that often happen when a high-caliber scorer puts a team on his back and carries an under-the-radar team deep in the tournament. Examples include Billy Donovan with Providence and David Robinson with Navy.
The remainder of conference tournaments begin this week. We will find out if Colgate or Bucknell can win the Patriot League this year. In the battle of the basketball brains, Yale and Harvard battle in the Ivy League tournament. Meanwhile, Arizona State beat their rival over the weekend. The Sun Devils swept Arizona for the first time in ten years. ASU might’ve earned enough street cred to earn an at-large bid.