Sun Devil freshman guard Jahii Carson has routinely played his best basketball during the second half in most of Arizona State's contests this season, and Wednesday was no different. Despite shooting just 5-18 from the field, Carson stepped up when the team needed him the most down the stretch.
On a night when the Sun Devils failed to establish any sort of offensive rhythm and found themselves trailing by three with just over one minute remaining in regulation, Carson drained a three pointer - his only one of the night - from the top of the key, setting up a chance for ASU to steal the victory late.
"Coming into conference play, I know people are going to make me take jump shots and I'm going to shoot them," Carson said. "I've got to get more confidence. I'm hitting them and down in the clutch I feel more confident. I felt we needed a three ball. The shot clock was in the middle so it wasn't going to be a bad shot, so I took my time and tried to knock it down as best as I could."
After forcing a defensive stop at the opposite end of the floor, Arizona State Head Coach Herb Sendek called for a timeout to diagram one last play with just over 27 seconds remaining in the game. Instead, the Sun Devils found themselves stymied by Utah's defensive assignment, settling for a contested Carson heave that would send the game into overtime.
"They went from like a man to a matchup zone," Carson described. "The play was initially for me to go off the screen and roll but as they collapsed the wings into the elbows it was kind of tough for us to get the play that we needed. That was a great strategy by their coach to let them know to switch with under five seconds. We kind of got confused about what they did and how to execute at the end."
Trailing by one in the extra frame, the Sun Devils would once again find themselves relying upon their sensational freshman point guard in the closing moments, as Carson poured in the final two of his 15 points, to go along with 4 assists, on an ultimate game-winning leaner in the paint with 35 seconds remaining to play, helping propel the Sun Devils to their 12th victory of the season (12-2, 1-0 Pac-12).
"Welcome to conference basketball, I guess," said an exhausted, albeit relieved, Sendek after his team withstood a furious and chaotic final seconds of play before escaping with the win.
"He just has a great capacity, as do most great players, of staying in the present," said Sendek on the steady play of Carson. "He believes in himself and I think he knows we believe in him and he just has a great capacity to let whatever just happened go and make the next play, which is a real gift. And not only did he make the two big field goals but he was perfect from the foul line and as much as he had the ball in his hands tonight he only had one turnover."
While Arizona State left much to be desired offensively on Wednesday night - shooting only 37% from the field for the game, including just 4-18 from three point range - it was the late game heroics from some usual, and unlikely, performers.
Carrick Felix continued his strong senior campaign, registering yet another double-double, finishing with 17 points and 13 rebounds while shooting 7-15 form the field. However, it was the contributions of another Sun Devil senior that came as a surprise to many.
With Jordan Bachysnki sidelined with a leg cramp during the overtime period, reserve center Ruslan Pateev strung together his most memorable performance of the season, both offensively and perhaps even more so, defensively as well.
Pateev fished with just four points and three rebounds in his limited action, but as Utah frantically attempted a last second game-winner, his defense on Utah center Jason Washburn, who finished with 19 points and 18 rebounds while being antagonized by the Sun Devil student section for most of the game, ultimately sealed the victory for the Sun Devils.
Pateev forced a rushed Washburn shot and altered another as time expired, as the crowd of 5,314 erupted in excitement.
"I'm really proud of the way our guys fought and battled on a night where offensively we struggled but we don't win the game without Ruslan's performance," Sendek commented. "I don't know if I've ever been as proud of a player as I am of him because he's all in, no matter what. He's the consummate teammate and it's not easy to not play and then be pout in those kinds of situations and play well."
"I've been here four years, probably the longest guy on the team and I don't regret coming from the bench or studying or playing; I'm a team guy," said Pateev. "Having guys who can run or play better than me, I respect that and do what coach asks me to do. I'm just trying to help the team as much as I can."
The Sun Devils, who opened conference play at home for the first time since 2008, will now get some rest as they're off until Sunday evening, when they play host Colorado. With a conference win already under their belt, even despite the sloppy play against Utah, Sendek and his team understand the importance of starting off the right way and keeping things balanced as the season progresses.
"You try not to get too high, you try not to get too low," Sendek remarked. "Learn from every experience, which we'll try to do tonight and get ready to play again on Sunday."