John Clay: Kentucky basketball nail-biter a perfect start to the season

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 9, 2012 

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Every season should start with a heated, intense, white-knuckler inside a brand new building in front of a pair of vocal fan bases with an outcome that goes right down to the wire.

Welcome back, college basketball.

We sure did miss you.

Kentucky beat Maryland 72-69 at the Barclays Center on Friday night in a game that reminded us two things.

One, new players make a new season.

Two, the best games always offer us some sort of surprise.

Jarrod Polson was this wonderful game's surprise. The former West Jessamine star, the walk-on point guard who had barely graced the floor in his first two seasons as a Wildcat, provided the steady hand and the much-need lift.

John Calipari had said Thursday, what with starting point guard Ryan Harrow suffering from flu-like symptoms, that he was comfortable with Polson playing "significant minutes."

But could even Calipari have ever envisioned such a significant contribution in the season opener?

In the first half it was Polson who subbed in for Harrow and calmed down the Cats, guiding the team from the point to a seven-point lead before checking out.

"When he checked in," admitted Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, "we were like, 'Who's this?'"

Second half, it was Polson who snuck inside among the tall trees and followed in a UK miss to put the Cats in front 64-63 with 5:10 remaining.

And it was Polson who stepped to the free throw line with 7.7 seconds left — in front of a Maryland crowd that outnumbered the UK crowd, by the way — and calmly sank two free throws that put the Cats up by what turned out to be the final score.

There was so much more, of course.

First half, Kentucky showed its talent, ripping off to a 13-point halftime lead, up 49-36.

"We weren't good in the first half," said Turgeon. "And Kentucky was great."

In fact, Big Blue Nation could have been forgiven for thinking after 20 minutes that nothing was going to change.

Never mind that Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller had moved on to the pros. These fresh faces seemed perfectly capable of doing exactly what that team did last season.

In the second half, however, Kentucky showed its immense youth, allowing Maryland to grab nearly every rebound, and missing some key free throws.

The Cats shot 24 percent from the field in the second half.

Calipari had said that the one good thing about playing such a quality opponent in the first game of the season, he would find out just exactly where his defending national championship team — without the national championship players — was in such an early stage of its development.

Truth of the matter, it's probably all over the place. Maryland's physicality seemed to bother the Cats and at times it appeared that the Terps merely beat Kentucky to balls, got there by hustle.

(To be fair, Turgeon said afterward he thought the difference in the game was "two or three hustle plays" that Kentucky made at the end.)

The Terps had 23 offensive rebounds. Kentucky grabbed 22 defensive rebounds. Not good.

The Cats missed 10 of their 28 free throws, including four of six from the stripe in a serious stretch before Kyle Wiltjer hit a pair of free throws with 24.6 seconds left.

That would be the holdover Kyle Wiltjer, a sophomore, who scored a team-high 19 points and combined with a fellow veteran, Polson, to save the day.

But what a day.

"Awesome," is how Turgeon described the atmosphere.

For a new season, this was the way to start.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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