Florida State ends Murray State, Ja Morant’s season to advance back to Sweet 16

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Florida State ended the potential Cinderella run of No. 12 seed Murray State and star point guard Ja Morant on Saturday as the No. 4 seed Seminoles ran away with a 90-62 victory in a second-round NCAA tournament matchup in the West Region.

Although Morant had the nation buzzing, again, thanks to a 5-for-5 start from three-point range to put the Racers ahead early in the first half, the depth, length and athleticism of Florida State quickly proved to be problematic for the Ohio Valley Conference champions. Settling in after Morant’s hot start, the Seminoles opened the game with a blistering 50-point first-half thanks to balanced scoring and 8-for-14 (61 percent) three-point shooting.

Florida State (29-7) advanced to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season thanks to a 10-deep effort with contributions from numerous guys. Even without seniors Phil Cofer and David Nichols, the Seminoles were incredibly impressive as they threw five or six different defenders at Morant to slow him down while most of the roster hunted dunks and lobs on the offensive end.

Sophomore forward Mfiondu Kabengele (22 points, seven rebounds, three blocks) was a menace on both ends of the floor for the Seminoles, giving the team an early boost off the bench offensively and providing rebounding and rim protection at the other end.  Senior wing Terance Mann helped the Florida State attack with an efficient 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists as he got pretty much any look he wanted attacking the rack. Making only his third college start in place of the injured Cofer, freshman forward Raiquan Gray had a career-high 11 points and five steals as he gave Florida State a solid boost with his first-half perimeter shooting and unique playmaking. And Florida State had 47 bench points on Saturday as they never stopped coming at Murray State.

The Seminoles don’t feature eye-popping NBA Draft prospects or a household name. Yet they continue to show well in the NCAA tournament the past few years thanks to their unique collection of athletes. With its deep-and-athletic positionless rotation, Florida State has only lost twice since Jan. 5  — to No. 1 seeds Duke and North Carolina. The Seminoles look like one of the most dangerous teams heading into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament because they can win in a lot of different ways.

The Seminoles survived the hot shooting of Vermont in the first half while closing the game out with great free-throw shooting. On Saturday, Florida State stopped a supernova talent at lead guard from carving them up by throwing body-after-body at Morant. If Florida State is shooting well from the perimeter (a credible future concern given their 33.4 percent three-point shooting entering Saturday) then they can compete with any team in the country.

Murray State (28-5) looked like they could be up for another potential upset following Thursday’s win over No. 5 seed Marquette. But after the hot-shooting start from Morant, the Racers didn’t have enough help from his overwhelmed teammates. After the memorable triple-double against the Golden Eagles, Morant finished with 28 points, five rebounds and four assists as the sophomore had to do much more as a scorer against Florida State. While Morant had the hot start from deep, Florida State’s defense gave Morant some problems inside the arc as he was 8-for-21 from the field — 3-for-15 from two-point range.

Limiting looks for the rest of Murray State’s roster, only guard Shaq Buchanan (12 points) and big man Darnell Cowart (10 points) finished in double-figures as the Racers struggled to get clean looks outside of Morant.

The NCAA tournament run for Murray State ends in disappointing fashion thanks to Florida State’s onslaught. But we were also fortunate to see a superstar like Morant get to play two games against high-major competition on the national stage. Entering the NCAA tournament, many casual basketball fans had seen Morant’s name in the top three of NBA mock drafts and seemed skeptical about Morant’s lofty status given his mid-major pedigree. With the tournament’s first triple-double in years, the tournament’s best first-round dunk and a hot three-point shooting game, Morant captivated the nation for two rounds before his exit.

If this is the final send-off for Morant at the college level before June’s NBA Draft (and it probably is given his top-three status), then what a way to go out. Considering that Murray State would have likely missed the NCAA tournament had they lost to Belmont in the OVC tournament title game, we’re fortunate that the Racers (and also Belmont) got into the Field of 68 and gave us some great games. When critics ask for more quality mid-major teams to earn at-large bids over near-.500 power-conference teams this OVC stretch in 2019 is precisely the reason why.

Florida State advances to face either No. 1 seed Gonzaga in next Thursday’s Sweet 16 in Anaheim. The Seminoles facing Bulldogs will be a rematch of last season’s NCAA tournament Sweet 16 matchup that saw No. 9 seed Florida State upset the No. 4 seed ‘Zags. Since both teams bring back similar rosters from last season, that rematch will be one of the most highly-anticipated games in the Round of 16.