Sports

Wall meets expectations in front of the nation

OK, America, so how do you like this John Wall now?

You heard the hype. You read the clippings. But unless you were a card-carrying member of the Big Blue Nation, or a hard-core hoops fanatic, until CBS brought its cameras to Rupp Arena on Saturday to give a national audience a full public viewing, you had not seen the freshman wunderkind with your own eyes.

To ask how Wall did reminded me of when the Beatles played Get Back on a London rooftop for a group of fans and John Lennon said, "I hope we passed the audition."

John Wall passed.

And he made shots. And he made steals. And he blew by disgusted defenders. He might even have aided Committee of 101 members in helping patrons to their seats. Or could have.

Best of all, Wall led the host Cats on a tornado-like 28-2 first-half blitzkrieg that awarded the home team enough of a cushion to survive a second-half rally and trump the North Carolina Tar Heels 68-66 in this rematch of college basketball royalty.

If you boil down John Calipari's usual loquacious post-game remarks to three words, it would be these three: "John was terrific."

The first 20 minutes were a Wall of wonder as the fab freshman scored 13 points, made five assists and grabbed three rebounds.

Carolina prides itself on beating teams down the floor. Wall beat the Heels down the floor. One trip, he zipped past a slower North Carolina defender for a ferocious dunk. Another trip, Wall zig-zagged his way through taller, thicker Heels for an outrageous up-and-under move that spun off the glass and through the net.

"He dominated the game," said Roy Williams, the North Carolina coach.

Wall dominated the game even when he wasn't in the game.

Less than two minutes into the second half, the freshman departed first to the bench with his left leg suffering cramps, and then to the locker room for fluids from an IV.

"I hate needles," he said afterward. "I was having a fit back there."

During his absence, you could almost feel the oxygen being sucked out of Rupp Arena. It was one eye on the floor and one eye on the hallway leading to the Kentucky bench.

Carolina charged back in a hurry as if the visitors knew they had to do all the damage they could before Batman returned from the Bat Cave. And even when Wall returned, he wasn't the same Wall. He was limping. He didn't have that same burst. He produced just three points and two assists in 13 gritty minutes.

Ah, but two of those points were pretty important. With 4.3 seconds left, Kentucky up 66-63, with much thanks to Wall's buddy Eric Bledsoe, who had just made three of four free throws, Wall limped to the line. He made the first free throw. He made the second free throw.

Ball game.

"I was really into it," said Wall, who finished with 16 points and seven assists. "This is the funnest I've had so far."

Talk about fun; the victory snapped UK's five-game losing streak to the second-winningest program in all of college basketball.

Not that there was any great mystery to the previous misery. While Kentucky's recruiting had slipped this decade, North Carolina kept pumping out pro-talent point guards from Raymond Felton to Ty Lawson, the kind of players that lead teams to wins, titles and banners.

Ah, but as a national audience got to see, Kentucky is now right back in the glory hunt, thanks to a premier point guard of its own.

"There have been a lot of things made about our recruitment of John," said Williams about the controversy of the home-state Heels not offering a scholarship to the Raleigh native. "(But) I've always thought he was fantastic."

Chances are, now America agrees.

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