Saturday, November 10, 2012

Kentucky 72 - 69 Maryland (Brooklyn, N.Y.) (No. 2,091)

Unlike the Republican party, the Kentucky Wildcats have long appreciated the importance of making a good showing in New York.  As they say, if you can make it there -- well, you know the rest.  New York is the Big Time, the Show, the Place to See and Be Seen.  Adolph Rupp -- a man who loved to See and Be Seen -- took Kentucky to play at the old Madison Square Garden for the first time on January 5, 1935, only five years after he started in Lexington.  The Cats lost to NYU on that occasion, but they would be back for many more.  In fact, tonight's game was UK's 47th in the New York Metro area, and many of our greatest wins -- the 1946 and 1976 NIT Championships, the 1948 and 1996 NCAA Championships, and our victories over Ohio State and North Carolina to reach the 2011 Final Four -- all took place in and around the Big Apple.

So it was very fitting that the Wildcats were chosen as one of two teams to play the first college basketball game ever at the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn -- the first major new basketball arena built in New York City since 1968.  The Wildcats did not disappoint.  In fact, they gave the Brooklyn fans two thrilling events for the price of one.  In the first half, they showed off their talent and looked like the best team in the country.  And in the second half, they pulled out a dramatic thriller with some clutch play from an unexpected hero.  Our all-time record in the NYC region is now 41-16.

I tuned in not having any idea what to expect, as I had never seen most of our team play before.  Here are the players I saw tonight:

# 3:  Nerlens Noel, Forward, 6' 10", 228 lbs., freshman from Tilton School in Everett, Mass.  Noel looks as though he could be a dominant force on defense, similar to the role that Anthony Davis played last year.  But so far he does not appear to be the same type of threat on offense that Davis represented, and he was struggling with his free throws.  He went 2-6 from the field, 0-3 from the line, and had 4 points and 9 rebounds.

# 33:  Kyle Wiltjer, Forward, 6' 10", 239 lbs., sophomore from Jesuit H.S. in Portland, Ore.  Wiltjer seems to be developing into the great college player I thought he could be last year.  His shooting was excellent, and he did a great job of stepping up when his younger teammates needed him to do so.  He went 6-9 from the field, 4-6 from three-point range, 3-4 from the line, and had 19 points and 6 rebounds.

# 22:  Alex Poythress, Forward, 6' 7", 239 lbs., freshman from Northeast H.S. in Clarksville, Tenn.  At times, can look dominant -- he has tremendous speed and strength, and looks as though he could be a better version of Terrence Jones.  But he clearly wasn't used to this level of competition, and tonight he kept trying to make plays that were just slightly beyond even his athletic gifts.  He went 3-8 from the field, 2-4 from the line and finished with 8 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 fouls.

# 10 Archie Goodwin, Guard, 6' 4 1/2", 198 lbs., freshman from Sylvan Hills H.S. in Sherwood, Ark.  Goodwin has a tremendous explosive quality that will make him very dangerous on offense, and I thought he played a pretty smart game throughout.  He also appears to be a good free throw shooter.  He played 37 minutes -- far more than anyone else -- and he went 3-8 from the field, 1-1 from 3-point range, 9-11 from the line.  He finished with 16 points and 2 assists.

# 12 Ryan Harrow, Guard, 6' 2", 170 lbs., sophomore from Marietta, Ga. who transferred from N.C. State.  There were reports that Harrow had the flu, and he did not look good in his brief stint at point guard. Played only 10 minutes, went 0-4 from the field, 0-2 from three-points range, and finished with 0 points and 2 fouls.

# 34 Julius Mays, Guard, 6' 2", 192 lbs., graduate student from Marion, Ind. who transferred from Wright State.  Appears to be a sort of instant-offense type, and took more shots than anyone else on the team.  Unfortunately, they weren't going down for him tonight, but I heard good things about his shooting in the pre-game show.  He went 3-10 from the field, 1-3 from three-point range, and finished with 7 points in 30 minutes.

# 15 Willie Cauley-Stein, Forward, 7' 0", 244 lbs., freshman from Northwest H.S. in Olathe, Kan.  Given his headband and his number, he looks like a much, much thinner version of DeMarcus Cousins.  I thought he showed a lot of hustle and some real unselfishness, and seemed to work very well with Noel when they were both on the floor together.  He went 3-6 from the field, and had 8 points and 6 rebounds.

# 5 Jarrod Polson, Guard, 6' 2", 189 lbs., junior from West Jessamine H.S. in Nicholasville, Ky.  Polson turned down Liberty University in order to walk-on at UK, and for his first two years on the team, he was the guy who came in at the end of blowout wins and got a big cheer from the crowd.  Here were his total numbers for his first two seasons:  62 minutes played, 1-9 from the field, 0-2 from three-point range, 5-8 from the line, 7 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 8 turnovers.  But tonight, with Kentucky in desperate need of steady guard play, Polson was tremendous:  4-5 from the field, 0-1 from three-point range, 2-2 from the line.  He finished with 10 points and 3 assists in 22 huge minutes.

We will have a lot more to say about these guys, but first let's talk about their opponent.  Kentucky fans have never taken Maryland very seriously, but the Terps consider themselves to be a big-time program.  They are used to playing -- and winning -- huge games against Duke and UNC, and they are not intimidated by anyone, including Kentucky.  In fact, the last time we played Maryland was in the 2002 Sweet 16, where the Terps beat us 78-68, ending Tayshaun Prince's college career on their way to the National Championship.  Maryland has been down somewhat in recent years, but in Mark Turgeon they seem to have a good young coach who will be successful.  Turgeon -- who did very well at Wichita St. and Texas A & M -- has gotten away from Maryland's traditional high-flying style, and has instead put together a hulking, physical team that looked very much like the football-style teams you see so often in the SEC.

Fortunately for Kentucky, the Terps were terrible shooters -- in the first half they went 13-44 from the field, and 0-11 from three-point range, and they didn't do that much better in the second half.  But they were stronger than the young Cats, and they attacked the glass with a sort of violent joy.  I have rarely if ever seen Kentucky so thoroughly dominated on the boards -- Maryland out-rebounded us 54-38, and had 28 offensive rebounds to our 13.  Time and again they would simply shoot, miss, and rebound until they finally scored.

In the first half, however, UK's offense was so good that the rebounding issue was no big deal.  UK went 18-31 from the field in the first half, including 5-7 from three-point range.  It was an amazing performance against an ACC school for a bunch of young players in their first game, and it put UK up 49-36 at the half.  All over the country, Kentucky fans like me were thinking that the Cats honestly didn't look that much worse than they had in winning the NCAA Tournament a few months ago, and who knows how much better we'll be by March?

But UK went cold in the second half, going 6-25 from the field and 1-6 from three-point range.  They also missed a bunch of free throws, going 10-18 for the half and 18-28 for the game.  Meanwhile, the Terps kept  rebounding and rebounding, and now they were making a few shots as well.  In fact, Maryland went on a 21-4 run to take a 59-57 lead with 8:25 to go.  The Brooklyn crowd could sense an upset, and I thought this was a dreadful spot for a bunch of freshman to be in.  Even Jarrod Polson's parents were worried -- his sister tweeted this great picture of them watching the game.

And it's a good thing the Polsons were watching.  Because their son (and Kyle Wiltjer) saved us.

Wiltjer made a free throw to make the score 59-58, and soon thereafter hit a jump shot that gave UK a 62-61 lead with 5:58 left.  By this point, it was like a really good tournament game, with each team taking turns on one huge possession after another, and players flying all over the floor.  Maryland took a 63-62 lead, but Polson (!) got a huge put back from a Noel miss to put UK back on top 64-63.

By this point, UK was going all-out on defense, and they were making it harder for Maryland to score.  With 3:49 left, UK led 65-63 and Noel was on the line for two free throws.  He missed them both, but then Polson STOLE THE BALL FROM A MARYLAND PLAYER and MADE A LAYUP IN TRAFFIC to put the Cats up 4.  It was one of the greatest clutch plays I can remember Kentucky ever making in that sort of situation, and it was made by a kid who had only scored 7 points in his career before tonight's game.

UK nursed that lead the rest of the way, and won the game after Wiltjer made two huge free throws to put the Cats up 70-66 with 24 seconds left -- and Polson made two even bigger free throws to give UK a 72-69 lead with 7 seconds left.  The Terps tried a three at the buzzer, but missed, and the Cats had survived.

On the whole, I do not think UK is the third-best team in America right now, no matter what the AP poll says.  In fact, I will be very surprised if these infant Cats beat a canny Duke team on Tuesday.  But I think the rebounding will get much better, and there is the potential for greatness in this lineup.  And besides, isn't it fun to have college basketball back?

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