TEMPE — Mark Lyons knew the discussion. It has been everywhere. So, Arizona State freshman Jahii Carson tweets last month that he thinks he’s the best point guard in the Pac-12.
Your response, Mr. Lyons?
It was this: 24 points, including 15 in the second half when the Wildcats repeatedly attacked Carson, who played only whispers of defense because of foul trouble.
After a tight first half, Arizona shot 56 percent in the second half and pulled away for a 71-54 win in front of 10,900 at Wells Fargo Arena on Saturday.
Carson is good. Carson is quick. Carson is confident. But it’s going to be hard to out-confidence Lyons, a senior flush with East Coast moxie and the experience of playing in three Sweet 16s at Xavier before his transfer to Arizona.
You want to talk about being the best point guard in the Pac-12?
Ha. Kid’s stuff.
“Honestly, I don’t want to be the best point guard in the Pac-12,” Lyons said. “I want to be the best point guard in the country. I aim for the moon. If I miss, I’m still amongst the stars.”
Lyons tied his career-high scoring at Arizona, scoring 15 points after the break. He fell three points short of his career high, set last season vs. St. Louis.
“I live for moments like this,” he said. “This is when great players are made, when everybody is watching. You make your mark on the college level.”
Carson contributed a team-high 22 points on an afternoon in which he didn’t have much help offensively. Evan Gordon put in 14 points, but leading scorer Carrick Felix was stuck in deep freeze (five points, 1 of 8 shooting) and third-leading scorer Jordan Bachynski scored a quiet three points. Those were season lows for Felix and Bachynski.
Arizona led throughout the second half, but Arizona State was threatening midway through, cutting its deficit to 46-44 with 10:26 left. Cut Carson picked up his fourth foul with 9:50 to go — a blocking foul as Lyons drove to the hoop — and the Cats smelled blood.
They went on an 11-0 run, and although Carson returned after only a short absence, with 8:06 to go, the Devils were sunk. Arizona kept attacking him on defense. Sometimes it was Lyons. Sometimes, Nick Johnson. Didn’t much matter. The Wildcats’ final 20 points of the game came on either layups or free throws.
“We just went at him,” Lyons said.
“Don’t try to set any screens or things like that. Just one-on-one, go at him and make him guard us. It benefited our team.”
Or as Arizona’s Solomon Hill put it, “Once Jahii got three fouls, he was suspect on defense.”
So, Lyons goes 1-0 against Arizona State, 1-0 against Carson. He said it wasn’t about that.
“We got the win, and that’s why I came here,” Lyons said. “I didn’t come here to play one-on-one. It’s a five-man team. My team came ready to play. Our whole team played great.”
Through 17 games, we know Lyons can sometimes be frustrating for Arizona fans. He has a tendency to shoot too quickly. He launched two air-ball 3-pointers Saturday. He picked up two fouls in the first eight minutes of the game Saturday. He had the ball stolen from him at mid-court, leading to an ASU layup at the end of the first half.
“I don’t really let plays get me down,” he said. “Regardless, I have t worry about the next play and win the game.”
Here’s what really matters, though. Not since Salim Stoudamire, has there been a more capable Arizona player with the ball in his hands when the game is on the line.
Such as this: Lyons had 12 points and three assists in the final 10 minutes against Arizona State.
“He has a great belief in his own ability, but he also has great belief in our team,” coach Sean Miller said.
“He is used to winning. He is used to playing in big games. He is used to performing in big games. When one player feels that way, it can become contagious.”
Carson will have his day, probably many of them, whether against Arizona or not. He’ll get a second chance at Lyons and the Wildcats in the regular-season finale in Tucson on March 9.
“He wants to be the best point guard in the Pac-12,” Lyons said. “Honestly, he might be. It’s up in the air right now. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a freshman. He has plenty more years to get better. He has a lot of upside.”
But any crowing belongs to Lyons, for now.