LAS VEGAS — In a town known for headliners, Arizona State point guard Jahii Carson stole the show Tuesday night in Las Vegas.
The sophomore scored a career-high 40 points to lead Arizona State to an 86-80 win at UNLV in front of an electric crowd that personifies the Entertainment Capital.
"In big games, when the crowd's like that, they have great energy, great athletes and a great team (and) I try to just go out and play my game," said Carson, who averaged 26 points in four games he previously played in Las Vegas, last year in the Las Vegas Invitational and Pac 12 Tournament. "The more I hit shots, the more energetic I feel and the better I feel about myself."
Carson, whose previous high was 34 points against Stanford in last year's Pac 12 tournament, was 16 of 25 from the field, including 2 of 3 from the 3-point line. The last Sun Devil to score 40 points in a game was Houston Rockets guard James Harden, who knocked down 40 against UTEP on Nov. 30, 2008. Carson's 40-spot ranks fifth all-time on the Sun Devils all-time single-game list.
"He was amazing, utterly amazing," ASU coach Herb Sendek said. "What can you say, right? Other than wow exclamation point, exclamation point."
Said UNLV coach Dave Rice: "Jahii Carson is an NBA point guard. We made a decision to limit their 3-point shooting and Jahii got away from us a little bit."
Trailing 61-59 with a little more than 10 minutes left in the game, the Sun Devils (4-0) went on runs of 9-4, 14-7 and 22-13 to seize momentum.
The Rebels closed the gap to three with 4:34 left in the game, but after Carson sank two free throws, ASU's Jermaine Marshall drained a bank shot falling to the ground, then blocked Kevin Olekaibe's shot at the other end, stole the ball and went coast-to-coast to cap a 6-0 run that gave ASU an 81-74 lead with 3:15 left in the game.
The Rebels had their chances to stay in the game, but failed to make crucial free throws down the stretch, missing 3 of 6 in the last 6:50. UNLV hit just 15 of 29 (.517) from the free throw line, including 10 of 19 (.526) in the second half.
"We just need to take our time and catch our breath and just knock 'em down," said UNLV's Roscoe Smith, about the Rebels' poor free throw shooting. "We do 'em every day, we do 'em every day individually, we do 'em every day in practice."
Marshall finished with 20 points, while Jordan Bachynski had 17 points and 15 rebounds for the Sun Devils.
Arizona State, which is averaging 90 points per game in its 4-0 start, shot 35 of 79 (.443) from the field, including a stellar 20 of 36 (.556) in the second half.
UNLV (2-2) had five players score in double figures, led by Smith's 18 points and 21 rebounds. Khem Birch also had a double-double, scoring 11 points and pulling 14 rebounds while also blocking eight shots.
"That's one heck of a rebounding team, I don't think we'll play many teams that are better rebounders than those guys," Sendek said. "I think our guys enjoyed playing in this environment. They knew it was a big game. It was an exciting game to play, and it was a hard fought college game. Both teams really competed tonight."
Birch led the Rebels with nine points in the first half, while Smith already had 13 rebounds. Deville Smith's 15-foot baseline jumper at the buzzer gave UNLV a 38-34 halftime lead. Trailing 16-15 with 13:03 left in the first half, the Rebels used 5-0 run to swing momentum their way, capped by Smith's fast-break dunk at the 9:48 mark to give UNLV a 20-16 lead. Smith's work in the paint helped UNLV outrebound the Sun Devils 36-24 in the first half. The Rebels outworked ASU inside for a 55-48 advantage in rebounds.
"Our main goal going into the season, with as many new faces as we have, was to play consistently hard," Dave Rice said. "We certainly gave a tremendous effort tonight and we just made a few too many mistakes down the stretch and we'll shore those things up."
Arizona State is off until Friday, when it will host Bradley, while the Rebels take a week off until hosting Illinois next Tuesday.