CHARLESTON – Ja Morant showed up immediately.
And he never went away.
Morant, on the game’s opening possession, drilled a 30-foot 3-pointer with a defender in close proximity.
That about sums up the night. The likely future lottery pick dissected whatever defensive look EIU threw at him, making contested shots and open ones alike and delivering timely passes. It left EIU coach Jay Spoonhour impressed once again.
“That’s what a pro looks like,” Spoonhour said.
Murray State and Morant, in a display of superior athleticism and speed, ran wind sprints around EIU in handing the Panthers an 83-61 loss Thursday night in front of scouts from 11 different NBA teams.
EIU (10-8, 3-2 OVC) traded punches with the Racers for the opening minutes, and led 7-5 three minutes into the game, but ran out of counter-moves fairly quickly. From there, Murray State rattled off nine points in a little more than two minutes and led comfortably the rest of the way.
The Racers, officially, were credited with eight fast break points. They generated many more transition chances with their defensive pressure, though, and made EIU play at a faster pace than it usually does. They had four steals in the opening minutes. Even when EIU could set its defense, Murray State sliced through it and made shots of all degrees of difficulty.
“We didn’t handle that great early in the game, and that led to some easy points,” Spoonhour said.
Mack Smith led EIU with 22 points. Shareef Smith added 13, and Rade Kukobat 12.
Shareef Smith, the man tasked with guarding Morant, had three early turnovers. Spoonhour took him out about five minutes in for a break. Searching for some kind of antidote for Murray State’s offense, he re-inserted Aboubacar Diallo, the defensive-minded center who typically plays the opening minutes and then takes an extended breather.
It provided an instant, albeit brief, lift for EIU. Diallo blocked a jumper and on the ensuing offensive possession, grabbed an offensive rebound and dunked. He later added a steal, a block of a floater and finally, blocked a Morant layup off the glass. Outside of those moments, EIU didn’t get enough stops to keep pace, and Murray State led by 19 at halftime.
The closest EIU came in the second half was 58-46, with 10:31 left. Diallo’s defense, once again, gave EIU a small spark. He swiped away two passes in the paint, both of which led to EIU points. The second steal led to a three-shot possession for the Panthers, which ended in Kashawn Charles’ 3 that narrowed the deficit to 12.
Murray State, though, decided enough was enough. Shaq Buchanan immediately responded with a 3-pointer. Morant followed with a layup, and then assisted on a second Buchanan 3. Two minutes later, the Racers’ lead was back to 20.