The humbling of Michael Carter-Williams was complete with 7:37 left in Saturday’s meeting between No. 6 Syracuse and No. 1 Louisville, when Russ Smith, the ball-hawking gnat who leads the nation’s stingiest defense, undressed the nation’s assist leader without the aid of a trap.
Carter-Williams could not even get the ball over halfcourt; Smith went chest-to-chest with him, knocked him off-balance, then ducked around his back to deftly tip it away for a steal. It was the Orange point guard’s eighth turnover of the game — already a career-high — and Smith turned it into a uncontested dunk for a 62-57 lead. Carter-Williams looked on helplessly. He looked defeated. He did not look like someone capable of taking back the game or of starring in what would improbably finish as a 70-68, crowd-silencing upset.
By that eighth turnover, the narrative was deeply developed: Sophomore floor general, All-America candidate, potential Lottery Pick faces his first real test of the season against an elite, pressure defense … and succumbs to the pressure in front of 16 NBA scouts and 21,814 opposing fans. Carter-Williams had already played his worst first half of the season, and Syracuse was only in the game because his backcourt mate, fourth-year starter Brandon Triche, scored 18 first-half points on 7-of-7 shooting. Cardinals coach Rick Pitino would later call Triche “the most underrated player in the nation.”
It was Triche who, after the Smith steal, approached Carter-Williams and tried to keep his head in the game. “I could see Triche big-brothering him,” Smith said, “just like Peyton [Siva] used to do with me.” Triche said he just wanted Carter-Williams to stay confident and stay comfortable. Syracuse coach Jim Boehiem, when asked what he’d seen out of his point guard’s early struggles, deadpanned, “I saw that we had no one else. It was pretty easy. He’s going to play.”
Out of necessity — the Orange lack a backup point and were also without second-leading scorer James Southerland, who is the subject of an NCAA investigation — Carter-Williams had the opportunity to draft a second act. It was one of total redemption: He orchestrated perhaps the season’s most stunning reversal, certainly the year’s biggest road win by any team, and not only a dethroning of a No. 1 team, but the first home loss by a No. 1 since Feb. 16, 2009, when Pitt upset UConn.
“I know that I had to make big plays down the stretch,” Carter-Williams said. “I would have been losing sleep if I didn’t step up in the end.” His first move was to lead a 9-0 run that immediately followed Smith’s dunk — by scoring seven straight points and then dishing out an assist to Jerami Grant. By the 4:39 mark, Syracuse had taken a 66-62 lead … only to give it all away and go down 68-66 with 1:58 left.
Carter-Williams’ next step was to draw an ill-advised foul on Louisville’s Chane Behanan with 53 seconds left, hit the first free throw to cut the lead to 68-67 … and then miss the second. While this was a potentially goat-worthy miss, it also served as a way to heighten the drama for the following defensive possession, when Carter-Williams made everyone forget about all the times he’d had the ball stolen from him.
Siva, the Cardinals’ senior point guard, dialed up his bread-and-butter offensive play: a pick-and-roll at the top of the key. As Siva dribbled right off of the Gorgui Dieng screen and drove into traffic, he opted to kick the ball out to Wayne Blackshear on the left wing with 26 seconds left — but Carter-Williams saw this coming before the pass left Siva’s hand and stepped into its path for an interception.
It was the start of the game’s signature moment: After the steal, Carter-Williams had a 70-foot race to the opposite rim, with the 6-foot-11 Dieng — one of the country’s best shot blockers, with enough athleticism to give chase — on his heels. Carter-Williams had already suffered through the early indignity of having Dieng match his first-half assist total (four); he did not want clips of him being stuffed running all night on SportsCenter.
“If I tried to lay it in,” Carter-Williams said, “I think he would have blocked it.” He was running purely on adrenaline, he said, and so he rose up with his right arm outstretched, “and just tried to finish it as hard as I could.”
The dunk went in. Dieng made contact with him; no foul was called, but Carter-Williams landed “horizontally” on the floor, hurting his left wrist in the process. There were 23 seconds on the clock, and Louisville had no timeouts, so Carter-Williams scraped himself off the floor, sprinted back and made two more, game-clinching plays.
He gobbled up Wayne Blackshear’s layup attempt, which Grant had blocked, and split another set of free throws with 13 seconds left. To atone for another miss from the stripe, he went for yet another steal on the ensuing play. When the ball was fed to Dieng in the low post with six seconds left, Carter-Williams pounced, ripping it out of the center’s hands and throwing it upcourt.
Game over. No. 1 fell for the second straight Saturday, but this time, it was far more unexpected. Duke lost on the road, at NC State, while missing a valuable starter. Louisville lost at home, in front of a record crowd, to a short-handed Syracuse team whose point guard — and heretofore its most valuable player — seemed to be wilting under the pressure. It was the first time all season Carter-Williams would finish with an assist-turnover ratio in the negative, at seven to eight, and a rare occasion where it didn’t matter at all.