This story previously appeared in our 2016-17 winter sports supplement. To view the supplement, click here.
With 19 seconds remaining, sophomore Matt Morgan stood at the 3-point line, his prolific deep-ball shooting drawing the close attention of Northeastern’s defensive man. Morgan was blocked off from a direct path to the basket.
With precious seconds ticking away in a nip-and-tuck match against the Huskies, failing to make it to the basket would result in Cornell’s sixth loss in seven games and reverse any momentum which the team would hope to build upon with its sole win against Lafayette a few weeks before.
The difficulty of the task did not faze Morgan, who has enjoyed a remarkable stretch of play since making his collegiate debut last season. Fashioning a disguised pass, Morgan cut left of his man, sashaying inward before sending in the game-winning layup.
Despite being a game-winner, the play was simply another display of Morgan’s growth and evolution from a spot up 3-point shooter to a guard with the ability to drive to the hoop.
‘Don’t pass the ball. Just shoot.’
Still a more-than-capable 3-point shooter, Morgan has placed a focus on the physical development of his game as of late. Standing at six-foot-three — slight of stature in the basketball world — Morgan has always dealt with being on the shorter side, giving driving to the hoop a much higher degree of difficulty.
“I was 10 playing on a U-12 team and my coach just told me, ‘Stand in the corner and shoot,’” Morgan said. “I was so short and little that every time I got the ball he told me, ‘Don’t pass the ball. Just shoot.’”
After last year’s stellar debut season, Morgan began to draw notice and respect from opponents, drastically decreasing the amount of clear shots he was accustomed to taking his freshman year. Under the guidance of newly instated head coach Brian Earl, Morgan was forced to adapt his style of play for the better.
“Last year I got most of my threes off driving kicks,” Morgan said. “A lot of defenses would overcommit to the ball, and I was left open. I was able to knock down shots without guys in my face. This year it is more me getting other people open, and shoot off movement.”
Morgan often understates his dream to play professionally, but one can sense his underlying confidence in realizing his aspirations. However, as with any journey, Morgan’s path featured a series of ups and downs. When Morgan first stepped onto the court at Cox Mill High School in Concord, N.C., his short stature funneled him down to the junior varsity squad.
Basketball in his genes
Morgan’s coach at the time, Jody Barbee, recalls his former player’s high school days, entrusting Morgan’s abilities from the get-go.
“I remember the moment,” Barbee said. “The football coach that was there at the time, he and I argued probably 15 minutes one day when Matt decided to play basketball. He said Matt couldn’t become a Division I basketball player.”
Barbee always believed in the player who he ended up coaching all four years. In Morgan’s sophomore year, Barbee was promoted to the varsity coaching gig and Morgan earned a promotion to the school’s top squad.
Barbee described Morgan as a willing learner and a true joy to coach, and he made no small mention of the fact that Morgan’s father is Lamont Morgan, a former Georgetown star who led the Hoyas to a Big East title and three NCAA finals appearances in the early 1990s.
“Lamont is great,” Barbee said. “If I could pick two parents, they’d be my two parents. Lamont was involved in Matt’s basketball, but he stayed in the background. On the ride home he gave Matt the choice [to] talk about the game now or talk about it later. Lamont was a parent who understood. I never heard a word from him in the stands. Kids are always looking in the stands to see if their parents approved, while Matt could play with freedom.”
Morgan echoed Barbee’s praise of his father, recalling when he walked into the locker room for his first varsity basketball game and being pleasantly shocked to see his name etched into the starting lineup.
“We all knew I was going to play varsity, but we didn’t know I was going to start,” Morgan said. “My dad just gave me this speech. He said, ‘If you do play, just go out there and produce, don’t do anything out of the the ordinary. If you’re on the bench make sure you cheer for your teammates and be supportive.’”
And so Morgan was on the court for a major match against North Mecklenburg — a top-25 high school in the state at the time — and was instrumental in defeating the heavyweights in overtime. It was at that moment that Morgan realized that he had the potential to play at the highest level, and so he transformed from the soft-spoken kid of slight stature to a player who led by example in his junior year, when the majority of his junior varsity teammates and coach made the full-time jump to varsity. Led by Morgan and his class, that team would go on to sweep the all-state and all-league accolades in their final two seasons.
But despite scoring a near-county record 760 points during his junior year, Morgan was not picked up by a college basketball powerhouse.
“He was very under-recruited,” Barbee said. “How he got out of the state of North Carolina was beyond me. One school told me he didn’t move well without the ball, and I couldn’t understand that. Isn’t he’s the leading rebounder [at Cornell]? Show me a guard who has got that many rebounds who isn’t moving well without the ball.”
One can imagine what Morgan must have felt when Cornell offered him the chance to play in a Division I program at a school that also prides itself on academic excellence. After facing early challenges due to his stature, a new opportunity now awaits him as the leader of the young Cornell basketball team with a fighting chance to make the inaugural Ivy League postseason tournament.
A budding leader
Classmates who saw limited minutes for the Red last season, such as Stone Gettings, are having a significant influence on proceedings alongside Morgan this year. In addition to maintaining a consistent output of 18 to 19 points a game, Earl has asked Morgan to improve his leadership and have an active role in team huddles and pep talks.
Barbee has full confidence that Morgan can continue to take these hurdles with stride, just as with the game against North Mecklenburg where he cemented his starting spot on the varsity team.
When Morgan tells the story of that special day, he remembers it with clarity and fondness. But rather than focusing on his performance that day, he highlights Barbee’s faith, and his father’s guidance.
Barbee and Morgan continue to text, telling each other about the status of their respective teams. His former coach remains his coach to this date, just of the life variety, not as much basketball.
“When he’s here back home in the summer, we open up the gym.” Barbee said. “He comes and plays with some of our guys, and they love it. I love that kid. He’s like one of my own.”