LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Michael Carter-Williams couldn't handle Louisville's pressure. Syracuse's long and lanky sophomore point guard was coughing the ball up, throwing passes to opposing players. It appeared as though he was overmatched -- both mentally and physically -- against Rick Pitino's top-ranked Cards.
But the 6-foot-6 Massachusetts native has been though adversity. Plenty of it. This was nothing.
He was one of just two African Americans in his school growing up in Hamilton, Mass. He was told he wasn't up to par to play Division I basketball, being labeled as a Division III player by one scouting service. He had to sit and wait his turn his entire freshman campaign last season, sitting behind veterans Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche as well as eventual lottery pick Dion Waiters.
Then there was the nation judging him after an incident earlier this season at Lord and Taylor in which he was detained by store security.
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Carter-Williams was flustered midway through the first half Saturday afternoon at the Yum! Center. The kid who had taken the nation by storm, the same one who leads the country in assists, had five turnovers in the first eight minutes of the game.
"I was terrible," he said. "I was hurting the team."
Even coach Jim Boeheim was at a loss for words, as it was apparent his floor leader was struggling against the quick and pesky Cardinals backcourt of Russ Smith and Peyton Siva. But Carter-Williams showed resolve when he knocked down a huge 3-pointer with 5:28 remaining to give Syracuse a 64-62 lead. Then he stole a Siva pass and had an emphatic dunk with 23 seconds left to put the Orange back up one, 69-68, and ended any Louisville threat when he ripped the ball out of Cardinals 7-footer Gorgui Dieng's hands with seconds remaining.
There was Carter-Williams, walking off the court with a huge grin.
"He dealt with a lot of adversity and showed some toughness," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said after the win.
"He became a man today," Syracuse associate head coach Mike Hopkins added.
Carter-Williams was never considered a heralded recruit until late in his high school career at St. Andrew's in Barrington, R.I. He wanted to attend Villanova, but Jay Wright didn't offer him a scholarship when he took a visit to the campus. So he wound up at Syracuse, where Boeheim was one of the few coaches that always felt as though MCW was a natural point guard.
Carter-Williams came into Syracuse understanding he might have to sit and fill a role, but that didn't make it any easier. He played well in spurts, but Jardine was the veteran, the leader of the time. Waiters was the guy who could get the Orange a bucket when necessary and Triche was the even-keeled veteran. There were moments where Carter-Williams displayed the potential that has some NBA scouts salivating, but then there were games in which he never got off the bench.
"It was a tough deal," Carter-Williams said.
There were plenty of days when Carter-Williams would come out of the locker room in tears. He'd call his parents, miserable, not knowing if he could make it through the season. He would ask Boeheim what he needed to do on the court, then try and follow his coach's suggestion. But he felt as though it didn't matter what he did, ultimately he couldn't get on the court.
"I always knew he was going to get through it," said his mother, Mandy. "He's never been a quitter."
Now Carter-Williams can reflect and understand how sitting and watching helped him prepare for this season, when he's taken on the role as the point guard and emotional leader. He's still learning when to score and pass, when to assert himself and when to pull back and allow his teammates to take over.
"It's been a learning process for all of us because we've never played together before this year," Carter-Williams said. "We're a new team for the most part."
With Carter-Williams running the show, the Orange improved to 17-1. The lone loss came against Temple at Madison Square Garden, a game in which he struggled and the Orange didn't make their free throws. Boeheim even said, after the win on Saturday, that no one had expected the Orange to return from Louisville with a win. Not without their best shooter, James Southerland, who didn't play and whose eligibility remains in flux due to academics.
"I kept us in the game," Triche said. "And he [Carter-Williams] won it."
Carter-Williams has made his share of mistakes. There was one early in the season, and there were plenty in the first half. He had six of his eight turnovers before the break and only made one field goal in the first 20 minutes. However, Carter-Williams has found a way to persevere -- both on and off the court.
"It was out of character," his mother said about the incident from earlier in the season. "He felt terrible. No one felt worse than Michael, but the important thing is that he learns from it."
"He's a winner," said Mike Hart, who coached him at St. Andrew's. "I don't know the whole story about what happened earlier in the year, but Michael is a high-character kid. Kids make mistakes. He's a college kid."
Carter-Williams was on the honor roll all three years in high school. He was in the school play and in the chorus all three years as well. His goal after he finishes playing basketball is to get into broadcasting.
But for now, Carter-Williams has emerged as Syracuse's star. He finished with 16 points, seven assists and four steals. When the game was on the line, it was a kid tabbed as a D-3 prospect not all that long ago who took center stage.