John Clay

John Clay: Big stage exactly where Wall belongs

NEW YORK — In a crowded interview room on the ground floor of the world's most famous basketball arena, the soon-to-be (if he isn't already) most famous player in all of college basketball let slip a small smile.

You couldn't help but smile with him.

Big Apple, meet John Wall.

How can such a thin guy keep coming up so big?

How can a guy so young keep being so clutch?

He did it in his debut, making the final shot to beat Miami of Ohio. He did it Saturday against North Carolina, putting together a phenomenal first half that had the visitors back on their Heels.

He did it again Wednesday night. Bright lights. Big city. Big deal.

Not only did John Wall score 25 points in Kentucky's white-knuckler 64-61 victory over Connecticut in a whale of a game in Madison Square Garden, he scored 12 of his team's final 15 points, and 15 of its final 21.

"We rode John at the end," said John Calipari, the Kentucky coach.

There was more to learn here than the fact the Cats have a fantastic point guard, something it (and we) already knew. And for the first half, as Calipari said, "We drank the poison." Guess that would be the poison apple.

Calipari has said that with his talented but young Kentucky basketball team, it was all about the learning process.

Well then, the youthful Cats received a New York public school education.

A veteran UConn backcourt did the first-half teaching. Jerome Dyson is a wise and tough senior. He's the other No. 11, and he scored 13 first-half points. Kemba Walker is a worldly sophomore, a New York City point guard with the grit that goes with it.

And down low, the Huskies gashed Kentucky on the glass 26-14 in the first 20 minutes. The Huskies taught the Cats a thing or two.

Ah, but the Cats showed they can be quick learners. Kentucky learned how to take a punch, even on the biggest stage, the one where they used to hold all those classic heavyweight fights.

This was no Garden Party. This was bruising and tough, the second half especially, the kind of Big East basketball that Jim Calhoun's clan usually loves.

It was also the kind of game in which the person next to you turns to you and blurts out, "What a game!"

But if this were a heavyweight battle, a bantamweight won it. Wall missed the final 7:56 of the first half with two fouls. He played every minute the second half, and ended up making 10 of 16 shots from the floor, including his only three-point attempt, and he was a perfect 4-for-4 from the foul line.

Calipari was harping after the game on Wall's seven turnovers, but Cal's a coach, harping is what he's supposed to do. It's in the manual.

"Second half," said Wall, "I just tried to do what Coach said."

Let the record show that Patrick Patterson's free throws with 11:35 left put Kentucky ahead, 41-40. But then let the record also show that it was the Wall show from there to game's end.

Twice the lithe guard got three-point plays that were huge in both time and execution.

The first came off a steal when Wall purposely slowed so that a Huskie could foul him on the layup. And he scored anyway.

The second came with all of 30.8 seconds left, after Connecticut had forged back in front, 61-60, when Wall sliced to the basket, got hit with a thud, and still muscled the ball through the nets.

And he made the free throw.

By now we're all starting to think he is from some other planet out there somewhere, but Wall is from Raleigh, N.C. Yet those were New York City kind of plays — savvy, tough, clutch, and at nail-biting, crunch time on a grand stage, the grandest they tell you around here.

"John is used to doing stuff like this," said Patrick Patterson.

We, and all of college basketball. are getting used to it, too.

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