NEW YORK — Syracuse freshman guard Jalen Carey’s night did not begin well.
Carey, starting for the first time in his young collegiate career turned the ball over three times in the first three minutes, and was quickly subbed out with 16:26 left in the first half.
“We just talked to him,” Syracuse coach Jim Boehim said, “just said relax.”
His stay on the bench was short lived, and Carey reentered with 13:54 in the half, heeding his coach’s advice.
He started by picking Alterique Gilbert’s pocket, slashing to the basket for a layup plus a foul.
That proved to be the impetus to a career-high 26 points in an 83-76 loss to Connecticut in the 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.
“I think taking me out was good,” Carey said. “[Boeheim] didn’t scream at me. He just told me I had to protect [the ball].”
That proved to be somewhat difficult, with Carey finishing with six turnovers. But he made up for it in other ways.
Carey found success around the rim, effortlessly gliding inside while absorbing contact. He got to the free throw line eight times, a team high.
Aside from leading his team in scoring, he led SU in rebounds (7) and steals (3).
Carey also embodied the grit of the Orange on a night when points came at a premium. Though the Orange fell behind by as many as 13 points in the second half, Carey pulled his team within five points, 76-71, with 1:02 to go after he buried a 3-pointer at the top of the key.
“He played great,” Boeheim said. “He played way better than we had any right or expectation for him to play.”
The expectation was actually that Carey would struggle, and that Syracuse’s “Big 3” of Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett and Elijah Hughes would shoulder the offensive load.
Instead, the trio combined to shoot 15 of 46 from the field, and it was Carey at times single-handedly keeping SU within striking distance.
“Those three guys just didn’t do that in any way, shape or form, and Jalen did,” Boeheim said. “I would’ve fully anticipated he would struggle in this game and the other three guys would be fine. They weren’t.”
Not every game will be like this. Rarely will all three struggle the way they did tonight.
It’s that offensive versatility that has the team remaining optimistic despite the early season loss.
“Once we get it together, we’ll be really dangerous,” Battle said. “Anyone can step up on a given night. Jalen stepped up tonight.”
That may be something that Battle says plenty of times throughout the year.
“Scoring 26 doesn’t mean nothing if we don’t win,” Carey said. “I’d rather have 15 with a win to be honest with you.”