BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Off, off-Broadway, Kentucky's 72-69 victory over Maryland Friday night had all the makings of another long-running hit. For a while.
An unlikely hero (Jarrod Polson?) made Kentucky look about as good as its No. 3 ranking and glittering, if freshman-dominated, roster suggested.
Then this version of "Cats" — staged before a sellout crowd (17,732) in the new Barclays Center across the East River from Manhattan's bright lights — looked like it needed several more rehearsals.
Act II began shortly after Kentucky established a 53-38 lead with 17:23 left. That matched the Cats' largest lead.
Then Maryland reeled off 15 straight points to turn a would-be mirth-filled laugh riot into basketball drama. Jake Layman's three-pointer over the outstretched hand of Willie Cauley-Stein — Maryland's first three-pointer of the game — reduced UK's lead to 53-51, prompting a timeout with 11:55 left.
UK Coach John Calipari, who could not recall calling a timeout during the Maryland run (he called one and there was a televison timeout, too) made a mass substitution: In came Ryan Harrow, Kyle Wiltjer and Archie Goodwin. Out went Polson, Cauley-Stein and Julius Mays.
After Maryland tied it at 53-53 with 11:40 left (the first time the Terps did not trail since the 14:01 mark of the first half), Wiltjer broke a six-minute scoreless streak with the three (part of a team-high 19-point game).
After the teams traded the lead four times within three minutes Kentucky inched ahead 64-63 on Polson's sneaky-Pete put-back with 5:10 left.
Later, Polson ripped the ball from Nick Faust's grip and somehow flipped a shot under James Padgett (who is six inches taller) to give the Cats a 67-63 lead with 3:44 left.
"What I tell Ryan is you have to be a high-energy guy," Calipari said of Polson's play. "That's all he did."
When asked how much Polson figured in Maryland's pre-game planning, Coach Mark Turgeon said, "Absolutely zero. ...
"When he subbed into the game, I said, 'Who's that?'"
Maryland got within 70-69 with nine seconds left on center Alex Len's put-back of his own missed free throw. That marked Maryland's 28th offensive rebound. "An NCAA rebound," Calipari said facetiously.
But Polson, who scored six of his career-high 10 points in the final 5:10, made two free throws with 7.7 seconds left to ease Kentucky to victory.
Polson did not feint false bravado when asked about stepping to the foul line with the outcome in the balance.
"Nah, I was nervous," he said. "I was pretty nervous (because of) not expecting to play that much."
On a night when Calipari and UK formally contributed a $1 million check for Hurricane Sandy relief, a punster might say that Kentucky weathered severe foul trouble in the first half. Four starters picked up two fouls within the first nine minutes.
Yet, with a physical and emotional boost from Polson, Kentucky outplayed Maryland to take a 49-36 halftime lead.
Poythress and Harrow picked up two fouls each before the first television timeout. Then Wiltjer and Noel also picked up second fouls by the 11-minute mark.
Somehow Kentucky did not trail the final 14:27 of the half with the margin in double digits the final 6:30.
Polson supplied the answer to any questions about UK's backup point guard play this night. He entered the game with 16:15 left and quickly made his mark. He cut to the basket, taking a pass from Cauley-Stein for a layup. A second basket came when he retrieved a long rebound and swished a 10-footer from the middle of the lane.
Less than seven minutes after entering the game, a player with one career basket had two. His 10 points represented three more than he'd score in his first two seasons.
"He was the whole key to the game," Turgeon said. "The kid gave them confidence, and he made the play of the game (taking the ball from Faust)."
Originally a walk-on who turned down a scholarship offer from Liberty, Polson set Kentucky free this night. "As a coach, nothing makes me happier," Calipari said.
The Maryland coach said hustle plays made the difference. Polson led the way.
In what might be the ultimate compliment, Turgeon said the game evolved into a matter of pride.
"Kentucky had national championship pride," he said. "They just wanted it a little more than we did."
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com