BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon was feeling good with his team’s start.
Four Wildcats were in foul trouble, his Maryland team was hanging around, and in comes the 6-foot-2, seldom-used Jarrod Polson.
Turgeon was feeling really good.
“He subbed at the table and I said, ‘Who is that?’ ” Turgeon said.
Turgeon will never forget him after Friday night.
While Kyle Wiltjer rained in 19 points and Archie Goodwin slashed his way to 16, no one was more important than Polson in Kentucky’s 72-69 season-opening victory at the Barclays Center Classic in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“He was the whole key to the game,” Turgeon said. “The kid gave them confidence. He made the play of the game on the rebound. … He was the difference.”
Polson’s difference-making play came after Maryland erased a 15-point deficit with a furious comeback. When Nerlens Noel missed a free throw with the Cats trailing 63-62, Polson snuck in from behind the arc, stole the ball and banked in a circus-like reverse layup in traffic.
Serving as the stabilizer for a young team’s first game, Jarrod Polson emerged as an unlikely hero with career highs in minutes (22), points (10) and assists (three). His free two free throws with 7.7 seconds left sealed the game for UK.
Kentucky never trailed the rest of the way, but Polson had to seal the game in the closing seconds, hitting two free throws under agonizing pressure with 7.7 seconds left.
“I was pretty nervous,” Polson admitted after the game. “Not even expecting to play that much and then being on the line with eight seconds left … I just tried to stay as calm as possible.”
Turgeon said Polson figured “absolutely zero” into his team’s game plan. While John Calipari told reporters Thursday that he was confident Polson could run the team if Ryan Harrow (illness) and Julius Mays (right leg strain) couldn’t play – they did – he never imagined Polson would be the difference in Kentucky’s thrilling victory.
“I’m proud of Jarrod,” Coach Cal said. “Jarrod is one of those guys that comes every day, plays within who he is, does the things he can do, doesn’t try to do more, and he just performs. He was outstanding.”
The performance was so unlikely that the former walk-on was trending nationally on Twitter.
Polson, he of the 62 career minutes in his first two seasons, played a career-high 22 minutes, scored a career-high 10 points and dished out a career-high three assists, all with no turnovers. The stat line, while superb, understated how valuable he was for a young and inexperienced Kentucky team.
As Calipari has sent player after player to the NBA over the last few years, Polson bided his time and waited for his chance. With another stable of freshman superstars, it looked as though the former walk-on would be relegated to mop-up duty for the third year in a year.
Calipari, though, as if he knew something like Friday night’s performance was coming, expressed confidence in Polson’s ability to run the team the day before the game.
“Obviously I’ve been going against some of the best players in the nation every year in practice,” Polson said. “Just working hard against them every day, that got me to where I am today.”
Polson was a first-half hero before a second-half savior. With four players picking up two fouls in the early stages of the game, it was Polson who patched the holes and stabilized the ship.
When Harrow picked up his second foul less than four minutes into the contest, Polson not only came in and kept the Cats afloat, he got them going. From the time Harrow left the game at the 16:15 mark until he came out with seven minutes left in the first half, Polson helped turn a 7-7 tie into a 31-20 lead.
Kentucky had a plus-16 point differential when Polson was on the floor, better than anyone else on the team.
“I was just waiting on that opportunity,” Polson said. “Ryan had been sick a little bit this week so I knew I might get the opportunity. (I) just focused in at practice and just tried to run the offense as best I could.”
UK would extend its lead to as much as 15 in the opening minutes of the second half, but the Terrapins got back in the game with a 15-0 run. Maryland powered its way back with relentless offensive rebounding, Alex Len’s 23 points and a suddenly cold-shooting Kentucky team.
The Terrapins grabbed a whopping 28 offensive boards on the night and led the overall rebounding margin by 16.
“They set an NCAA record of offensive rebounds,” Calipari said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Calipari joked that Maryland would have been better served to scrap their plays, throw up a shot and go get the rebound, and it times it looked like that’s Turgeon’s team did as the Cats struggled to come up with loose balls.
But for as clutch as Polson was, UK was fortunate to only give up 19 second-chance points.
“You get guys that don’t think it’s their responsibility to go rebound,” Calipari said. “A lot of those were balls that just bounced over heads, and what Maryland did is they wedged us under the goal and we let them.”
The wheels started to fall off for UK when the offensive boards started piling up, but Calipari expected some growing pains for his green team under the national microscope. In the days leading up to the game, he said he wanted to see who he could count on when the “popcorn started popping” and the lights shined down on the big stage in New York.
“Now you see we’re freshmen and young kids,” Calipari said.
All things considered, Calipari was elated to walk out of the Barclays Center with a season-opening win.
“It was good for us,” Coach Cal said. “I told the guys at halftime, ‘We should be up 20, we made it 13, we gave up some dumb things down the stretch (and) now they’re going to make a run. It’s exactly what we need because I want to know who I have to finish a game with.’
“That’s kind of how it worked out.”
But nobody could have envisioned Polson being the solution. Especially not Mark Turgeon.