WASHINGTON -- None of them knew what to expect from Michael Carter-Williams. Not his mother, Mandy. Not his stepfather, Zach Zegarowski. Just days earlier, he was informed that his house, the one the family built when he was just 4 years of age, had burned down. Totaled.
Zach wasn't even supposed to be in D.C. for the Sweet 16 matchup against Indiana on Thursday night. The insurance adjuster was set to come, but friends bought him a plane ticket and Carter-Williams then delivered the most clutch performance of his young college career.
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"That's the best game he's played all year," Zach said.
"No question," 'Cuse coach Jim Boeheim added. "He made the shots tonight."
Carter-Williams, considered a non-shooter due to his 28 percent mark beyond the arc, drilled a trio of 3-pointers and finished with 24 points in the 61-50 upset over top-seeded Indiana. After the buzzer sounded, Carter-Williams sprinted to the front of section 112, flapped his jersey and pointed to his family.
"It was great to bring a smile to their face," he said.
This one was unexpected. Syracuse wasn't supposed to win. This was the same team that lost five of its final eight games leading into the Big East tournament, going up against an Indiana squad that was favored by many to cut down the nets in April a week from Monday. But the vaunted 'Cuse 2-3 zone reared its length on this night, and the Hoosiers diminutive guards were completely overmatched and ineffective.
"The key was our perimeter defense," Boeheim said after his team advanced to the Elite Eight for the second consecutive season. "It was tremendous. We didn't let them get shots and penetrate."
Carter-Williams did it all in this game, registering arguably his best all-around performance despite finishing with just one assist. He scored, grabbed five rebounds, made shots from beyond the arc, defended and also committed just one turnover.
"I've been hearing we didn't have any heart and we're soft," Carter-Williams said. "We showed a lot of heart and toughness tonight."
Zach was in the house with a couple of friends and his kids when the fire broke out Saturday night in the fireplace. Mandy was in San Jose, Calif., with her daughter, watching Carter-Williams and was told the news at halftime. It was 58 seconds into the California game when he saw smoke in the kitchen, went downstairs to the basement and saw more smoke. That's when he called the fire department and was outside of the house watching the game through the living room window when the fire burst out through the chimney. He grabbed a garden hose, and was quickly told to evacuate by the police and firemen.
"It took them an hour to get the fire out," he said. "We thought it was under control, but then the ridge of the roof caught on fire and the next thing you know it looked like a war zone. It was 2:45 a.m. before it was over. We lost everything. The house will be totaled."
Carter-Williams knew something was wrong when he looked up and saw his mother bawling early in the second half during a timeout. His mother told him what happened after the win against Cal, and Carter-Williams was in utter disbelief. The entire family -- including 16-year-old Masey and 14-year-old twins Marcus and Max -- are now living with Joe and Ellen Morrissey in Rowley, Mass. Carter-Williams sent home whatever money he had at school to help his younger siblings buy clothes.
"We have nothing," Mandy said. "We have to buy everything. Max started crying when he couldn't find any socks."
But there was Zach and Mandy sitting in the stands, smiling from ear-to-ear after watching Carter-Williams make Indiana pay for going under the screens, a clear sign of disrespect for his perimeter shot.
This was exactly what this family needed, exactly what Carter-Williams needed for his mental health. Carter-Williams admittedly has struggled with his confidence all year long. He's been thrust into a leadership role after barely playing a year ago. Boeheim lost Dion Waiters, Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph and Fab Melo -- four of the team's top six players -- from a year ago. Carter-Williams is the point guard, go-to guy and also the most vocal player on the court. It's been a roller-coaster ride prior to this past weekend, and now he's dealing with off-court adversity.
"I've been a little off. I was worried about my brothers and sister," he said. "I'll be OK, but I was worried about them."
He's seen the pictures of the house, but hasn't been home yet. The photos, trophies and autographed jerseys are gone. So is the jersey of his friend, Richard Jones, who played at Canisius and died after collapsing of an enlarged heart. He texted his aunt hoping that she still had photos of the kids from when they were younger.
"He's been hiding it from Zach and I," Mandy said. "But I know it's been tough for him. He's been holding a lot back."
But this was Carter-Williams' opportunity to allow his family to forget about the issues for a few hours. He let everything out, played stellar on both ends and the big men helped shut down Cody Zeller. Syracuse will play on Saturday against Marquette in an all-Big East Elite Eight.
"This was fun," Zach said. "We needed it. Badly."