TEMPE, Ariz. — Jahii Carson came back to lead Arizona State into the NCAA Tournament.
Beating up on an outmatched opponent to open the season isn’t going to get the Sun Devils there just yet, but it isn’t a bad start.
Carson had 19 points and five assists to kick off his final season in the desert, helping Arizona State roll to a 96-61 victory over Maryland-Baltimore County on Friday night.
“I definitely have a lot of emotion as far as excitement because these guys are great guys, and I just want to go out and leave a mark at ASU,” Carson said.
Though the Sun Devils were a little off-kilter at times in their opener, they were good enough against UMBC, using a 12-0 run midway through the first half to blow open what started out as a tight game by both teams.
Carson has said this sophomore season will be his last at Arizona State and was certainly ready for the opening act, blowing past the Retrievers to get into the lane for layups and kickouts to open shooters. He hit 6 of 12 shots from the field and 6 of 7 free throws with two turnovers.
Arizona State got contributions from up and down the bench as well, led by newcomer Jermaine Marshall, who had 19 points.
Jordan Bachynski added 12 points and matched a career high with 15 rebounds, Shaquielle McKissic had 11 points and Arizona State held UMBC to 36 percent shooting.
“Guys were all in,” Sun Devils coach Herb Sendek said. “I just loved our team’s togetherness and attitude this evening.”
UMBC faced a tough opener, but never stopped fighting, cutting a big first-half deficit to 11 with a chance to cut it eight with a 3-pointer midway through the second half.
The Retrievers missed that shot, and Arizona State ran away with it from there, but it was a good measuring stick for the rest of the season.
Brett Roseboro and Rodney Elliott had 12 points to lead UMBC.
“I don’t want to say it’s as tough as it gets for us, but it’s going to be up there,” UMBC coach Aki Thomas said. “I think we challenged ourselves coming up here, a long trip to see how we match up with the top half of the country. For the most part, there were bright moments we can take from this.”
Carson lived up to a mountain of expectations during a stellar first season in Tempe, leading the Sun Devils in scoring and assists while setting numerous freshman records in 2012-13. The one thing he couldn’t do was lead the Sun Devils to the NCAA Tournament despite a 22-win season.
That hole in his resume was one of the main reasons Carson decided to return for one more season before heading off the NBA.
UMBC didn’t figure to be much of a gauge for Carson and Arizona State; the Retrievers won eight games last season and have eight newcomers.
Of course, the Sun Devils also eight newcomers, though most of theirs were a little more established, led by Marshall.
Penn State’s second-leading scorer last season, he was expected to give Arizona State a veteran presence, good perimeter shooting and a great tag-team partner with Carson.
Marshall was hampered by a minor injury and Valley Fever during the preseason, but was in the starting lineup for the opener.
He certainly looked fine playing alongside Carson against UMBC.
After a somewhat sluggish start by the Sun Devils, Carson scored his first basket on a difficult up-and-under, then got into the lane to set up Marshall for a 3-pointer in the corner. Marshall had a steal on the next possession to set up Carson for a 3 in transition then scored on a pair of hard drives to the basket.
Marshall added to it late in the half, dropping in his second 3-pointer in transition to put the Sun Devils up 41-22.
“I finally got to get back out on the floor and play with Jahii for the first time and everybody else,” Marshall said. “I felt good.”
Carson did what does best on Arizona State’s last possession of the half, dribbling one way, reversing his course and flipping up a one-handed runner off the glass to make it 45-28.
UMBC tried to chip away at the lead a couple times in the second half, but Carson had an answer most of the time, including consecutive acrobatic drives to the basket in the early going and a kick out to set up Marshall for a 3 midway through.
Arizona State put it completely out of reach with an 11-0 run that made it 73-49.
“I did like the fact that we fought at times and stuck together even though the score didn’t really indicate that we had a chance to win the game,” Thomas said. “It was a tough game and I think it will help prepare us for our league.”