His team throttled at the hands of an in-state rival, Jahii Carson hugged his way through the post-game line, then slogged away, head hung, thoughts racing.
Damon Stoudamire spotted him, and the Arizona assistant coach pulled him aside. They could’ve been brothers. Maybe twins. Maybe clones.
One fearless, 5-foot-10, all-attitude, all-world point guard to another, eye-to-eye, man-to-man.
The crux of the conversation: Be you, young man.
“He’s a smaller guy who was successful in the NBA, he was successful on the college level and he definitely feels like he can give me some words of advice, just to be more successful in the future,” Carson said. “It was just, ‘You’ve got great talent, leaping ability, stay humble and hungry.’”
After a 20-point performance — albeit on 7-of-19 shooting, his seventh straight off-game — in Arizona State’s 91-68 loss to the No. 1 Wildcats, Carson said his confidence had been down.
Drives into the center of Arizona’s massive front line culminated in no-calls; all the bruises, nothing to show for them. When Carson did crack the defense, the Wildcats collapsed, forcing wayward scoop shots.
Carson added insult to his recently injured reputation, taking a tumble over the scorer’s table after diving for an errant pass, drawing ridicule from Arizona fans.
Stoudamire helped pick him up.
There is a fraternity in this whole basketball thing, and entrance to the club can be explained in the simple phrase, “game recognizes game.”
And Carson has game, even if it’s been a little off recently.
The sophomore guard, considered one of the best in the country coming off Pac-12 co-freshman of the year honors, entered the game on a 28-for-82 shooting skid over his previous six games.
Then, sprinting down the floor like a blur, he found Arizona’s twin-or-triple-or-quadruple towers blocking the hoop, and he started the game 0 for 6.
His shooting taking a dip recently, Carson admitted to losing a bit of confidence, but his strong finish Thursday – he went 5 for 9 in the second half and hit 6 of 7 free throws for the game – went a ways toward restoring the swagger.
“A little bit,” Carson said, when asked if the chip on his shoulder had been chipped further. “I started to try to get some of my teammates involved a little bit more, did things I don’t normally do, which takes away what’s been successful for me, which is driving the ball.”
Carson said he caught himself “looking sluggish, like I wasn’t having any fun,” and that he felt like he wasn’t getting the calls that he expected.
And as the two ice packs on his shins after the game showed, you know they left a mark.
But as the Sun Devils’ fearless Mighty Mouse, he trudged in, despite Arizona’s mountainous middle.
Classic Carson: Down 21 points late in the first half, he flashed by Wildcat point guard T.J. McConnell, dropped in a layup and drew a foul, before clapping and screaming, “Let’s go!”
Missing Jermaine Marshall, though, that wasn’t about to happen, not with McConnell hounding his every move.
“It’s real tough – he’s one of the guys who spreads the floor for me to get easier drives,” Carson said of Marshall, who was out with a groin injury. “Today I was attacking like I normally do, but it’s a little easier when he’s out there. He hits threes and they have to contest his jumpers.”
The Wildcats did a good job of staying in Carson’s face, if not in his head.
“T.J. did a good job of making all his shots tough,” Arizona guard Nick Johnson said. “Seven-for-19, that’s a pretty effective defensive performance by T.J. and some by me. We just made his job hard.”
It was just Carson on Thursday, as it has been so often. Except at the end, when Stoudamire was right by his side, eye-to-eye.