On any other night, UNLV forward Roscoe Smith would be the story.
The 6-foot-8 UConn transfer grabbed 21 rebounds to go along with 18 points, his second straight 20-plus rebound game.
On any other night, UNLV center Khem Birch would also be the story, nearly finishing with a triple-double with 11 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocks.
But on Tuesday night before an electric crowd of 12,915 at the Thomas & Mack Center that had a March Madness feel to it, Arizona State point guard Jahii Carson was THE story.
The explosive 5-foot-10 sophomore scored a career-high 40 points and dished off seven assists to lead the Sun Devils (4-0) to a 86-80 victory over the Runnin’ Rebels (2-2).
Carson finished 16-of-25 from the floor, many coming off explosive drives to the basket where he would arch the ball over the out-stretched arms of Birch, who also swatted his share away. But Carson also showed his versatility with some nifty passing and outside shooting, including a pair of 3-pointers in a 82-second stretch that helped rally Arizona State back from a seven-point second half deficit.
“I just kept driving the basketball and then tried to find my teammates if that wasn’t there,” Carson said. “Definitely, for sure (the best game he’s had at ASU). This is one of the huge-est wins I’ve had here too. The win is more important to me.”
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“Carson was tremendous,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “Give him a lot of credit for the game he played. He’s an NBA player. He controlled he game. … It was a huge challenge to try and get Carson stopped.”
Despite Carson’s huge night, it was still anybody’s game with 4½ minutes to go.
Birch brought the Rebels to within one, 75-74, when he scored over 7-foot-2 Sun Devil center Jordan Bachynski, who finished with 17 points, 15 rebound and four blocks and also looked like he had an NBA future.
But Arizona State went on a 6-0 run after that to take control. Penn State transfer Jermaine Marshall, who finished with 20 points, had two baskets during the spurt, the second coming on a fast-break layup after he blocked a shot by Rebel guard Kevin Olekaibe at the top of the key.
“Arizona State is an NCAA Tournament team,” Roscoe Smith said. “They just executed extremely well in the final five minutes of the game.”
UNLV lost despite outrebounding the Sun Devils, 55-48, and committing just eight turnovers in the fast-paced, up-and-down game. All five starters finished in double figures led by Roscoe Smith’s 18 points.
Carson, for one, was impressed with what he saw.
“I definitely think (UNLV) is a tournament team,” Carson said. “I don’t see anybody in their league beating them. They’re one of the most athletic teams in the country. They have huge rebounders and they have all the tools to be great.”
UNLV now has a week off before hosting Illinois on Tuesday night at the Thomas & Mack.
PHOTO AND VIDEO BY BARRY WONG