LAS VEGAS — The Jahii Carson Show is back and it came alive when his ASU men’s basketball team needed it the most.
Carson broke out for a career-high 40 points — with 26 coming in the second half — as the Sun Devils (4-0) defeated UNLV on the road 86-80. Carson also added seven assists and three rebounds.
“In big games, when it comes out and the crowds like that with high energy, great athletes and a great team like that, I try and go out there and play my game,” Carson said.
Carson’s latest scoring onslaught doesn’t surprise his teammates, yet it continues to amaze them.
“That’s the best performance I’ve ever seen live,” ASU senior guard Jermaine Marshall said. “It was crazy.”
Since early into his redshirt freshman season last year, Carson has constantly been compared to James Harden as one of ASU’s best individual players of all time. The comparisons are easy to make, even for ASU coach Herb Sendek, who coached both players.
“To my recollection, I’ve coached two guys who’ve done that in that occasion — James (Harden) against UTEP and tonight, Jahii against UNLV,” Sendek said. “It was amazing.”
Carson had his way all night against the Runnin’ Rebels (2-2). Unlike ASU’s past three opponents, UNLV played man-to-man defense throughout the entire game. Carson took advantage and practically picked his spots to score on the court.
He had help, too.
Marshall chipped in 20 points on 8-of-15 with three 3-pointers and Senior center Jordan Bachynski had 17 points and 15 rebounds.
“A guy that’s going for 40 points, they definitely got to worry about him so that frees me up a whole bunch,” Marshall said.
The game was tightly contested from wire to wire, as there were 11 lead changes and nine ties. The Runnin’ Rebels penetrated aggressively and had 24 points in the paint in the first half. UNLV went on a few spurts that sparked the crowd at the Thomas & Mack Center, but ASU kept answering with and-one baskets.
“They were coming at us in three ways, transition, dribble drive and maybe their best play was when they missed the shot, go get it,” Sendek said.
UNLV junior guard Deville Smith hit a midrange corner buzzer-beater to send the Runnin’ Rebels into halftime with a 38-34 lead. Sendek made several adjustments in the locker room at half.
“We changed our ball-screen coverage and we really started going under as opposed to our more conventional coverages and just keep trying to keep guys in front of us,” he said. “We had to play inside-out and protect the paint because of their dribble-drive prowess.”
Then Carson took over in the second half, shooting 9-for-13 and drawing several fouls. Carson said he took more jump shots as the Runnin’ Rebels kept going under screens coming out of halftime.
Neither team shot well. The Runnin’ Rebels shot 41.3 percent from the field while the Sun Devils had a 44.3 field goal percentage.
ASU coach Herb Sendek was concerned about the Sun Devils’ rebounding coming into the game, and it clearly was a weakness. UNLV outrebounded ASU 36-24 in the first half with 12 offensive rebounds. The Sun Devils responded by boxing out and holding the Runnin’ Rebels to 19 boards in the second half while snatching 24.
The Runnin’ Rebels’ frontcourt was an imposing presence. UNLV junior forward Khem Birch had eight blocks for the night and swatted several of Carson’s layup attempts. Redshirt junior forward Roscoe Smith had 18 points and pulled down 21 rebounds.
“That’s one heck of a rebounding team,” Sendek said. “I don’t think we’ll play many teams that are better rebounders than those guys.”
For a team hungry to make it into the NCAA Tournament, a win over a storied program on the road was huge for ASU, and, as Carson said, it will help the Sun Devils move in a positive direction going forward.
“I feel we defended well, we executed well, we rebounded well with those guys,” Carson said. “So it’s definitely a huge confidence boost knowing we (can play with) one of the most athletic teams in the country.”
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Josh_Nacion