NEW YORK – If you were one of the people who didn't expect Jarrod Polson to be a factor in No. 3 Kentucky's season-opening win join a big crowd that includes Maryland coach Mark Turgeon.
"Zero," Turgeon said when asked how much his team prepared for the junior guard. "We weren't thinking about him. Then he was the whole key to the game."
The 6-foot-2 Polson, who with a crew cut could have auditioned for "Hoosiers," had 10 points — three more than he had in career at Kentucky coming into this season — and made the hustle play and the clinching free throws as the Wildcats held off Maryland 72-69 on Friday night in the second game of the Barclays Center Classic, the first college basketball games played in the new arena in Brooklyn.
"I was just waiting on the opportunity with (starting guard) Ryan (Harrow) feeling a little sick with the flu," Polson said. "I focused in on practice and was just trying to run the team as best as I could."
OK, so how did the guy who is not a member of the highly rated current freshman class or even one of the few upperclassmen on the team really feel.
"I'll be honest I was nervous but at the same time it was good to get out there and play again with this group of guys," Polson said. "It was fun."
Kyle Wiltjer, a sophomore, led Kentucky with 19 points while Archie Goodwin, the only one of the four freshmen to score in double figures, finishing with 16 points for the defending national champions, who looked to be in control taking a 49-36 at halftime and then led by 15 points with 17:22 to play.
"I was pleased with the way we started," Calipari said. "I told them at halftime that they were going to make a run and they did. We've had 22 practices, we were playing before a sellout and had Dickie V. doing the game on TV. I was impressed with the way we grinded it out."
Seven-foot-1 sophomore Alex Len led Maryland with 23 points and 12 rebounds, both career highs. His rare three-point play — he made the first free throw then rebounded his own miss of the second — brought the Terrapins to 70-69 with 8.9 seconds left.
Polson was fouled with 7.7 seconds left and made two free throws for a 72-69 lead.
Maryland's Pe'Shon Howard missed the final shot but it was only a 2-point attempt.
"We weren't very good in the first half and I thought Kentucky was great," Turgeon said. "We weren't ready for the big stage but in the second half we executed better."
Before the game, Calipari presented a check for $1 million to the American Red Cross to help victims of Superstorm Sandy. The money was raised in telethons in Kentucky set up by Calipari and was to help those from Brooklyn, a New York City borough which received extensive damage from the storm.
Almost all the attention coming into the game was about Kentucky's recruiting class, one which the fans there hoped would lead them to a national championship as last season's freshman class did. But the Wildcats had six players drafted, including Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who were taken No. 1 and 2 overall.
This class still has talent but they looked like freshmen, especially coming down the stretch when the veterans — Wiltjer and Polson — made the key plays to keep Maryland from taking the lead over the final 5 minutes.
Maryland had a terrible shooting first half, finishing 13 of 44 (29.5 percent) — including missing all 11 3-point attempts. Kentucky, on the other hand, was having a great half from the floor. The Wildcats made 18 of 31 from the field (58.1percent) and they were 5 of 7 from beyond the arc in taking a 49-36 lead.
With most of the sellout crowd of 17,732 on the side of the Terrapins, the shooting turned for both teams.
Suddenly Maryland was hitting shots, even three 3-pointers, and it crashed the boards relentlessly. The Terrapins outrebounded Kentucky 54-38, including a 28-13 advantage on the offensive end. Maryland was missing but enough of the rebounds went its way that the Terrapins were able to go on a 21-4 run that gave them a 59-57 lead, their first since the game's opening minutes.
There were five lead changes from there and the last came on a follow by Polson that made it 64-63 with 5:18 left. That Kentucky was even close was amazing since the Wildcats made one of 11 from the floor and committed three turnovers while the Terrapins were on their run.
Kentucky finished the second half 6 for 25 from the field (24.0 percent) and made only 1 of 6 on 3-point attempts but it was the rebounding that Calipari wanted to talk about.
"Their best play in the second half was to miss, rebound, miss, rebound, miss rebound and score," Calipari said. "In the second half we couldn't make a basket. But we're learning. We got manhandled a little bit. We're not playing tough enough and I don't know how we are going to fix that."
Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein both had eight points for Kentucky, while the other freshman, Nerlens Noel, had four.
Nick Faust had 11 points for Maryland and James Padgett, a native of Brooklyn, added 10.
"We're going to win," Turgeon said. "We didn't win tonight but we are going to win."
Kentucky is 90-19 in season openers, while Maryland had a streak of 10 straight season-opening wins snapped.