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November 9, 2012

Polson plays big part as Cats hold off Maryland 72-69

BROOKLYN, N.Y. - At home, they shout "Shoot!" at Jarrod Polson.

When the former walk-on gets in a game for Kentucky at Rupp Arena, the crowd goes wild, and fans urge him to launch the moment he touches the ball.

Friday night at the Barclays Center, he didn't need any direction.

Polson had career highs in points (10), assists (three) and minutes played (22) and made critical plays down the stretch to help boost No. 3 Kentucky to a 72-69 season-opening win against Maryland.

"Obviously I'm not one of the most talented guys out there on the court, so I knew I had to do different things, and that was a lot of defense and hustle," Polson said. "So that's what I tried to do."

The result was the finest game of his UK career. It came in the nick of time.

When Nerlens Noel slammed home an Archie Goodwin lob with 17:24 to play in the second half, it didn't look like the Cats would need late-game heroics from anyone, let alone a little-used guard from Nicholasville, Ky.

That Noel slam put Kentucky in front of the cold-shooting Terrapins 53-38, and it looked like a rout was in order. But Maryland chipped away, mostly on the strength of its 28 offensive rebounds and 19 second-chance points.

Maryland ripped off 15 straight points, and a thunderous dunk from Shaquille Cleare with 11:42 to play tied the game at 53-53. A three-pointer from Kyle Wiltjer - who led UK with 19 points - put the Cats back in front, but after a Goodwin free throw, Maryland responded with back-to-back three-pointers from Seth Allen to take a 59-57 lead.

The game seesawed from there, but Kentucky took the lead for good with 5:10 to play when Polson soared to tip in a Noel miss, putting the Cats in front 64-63. With 3:46 to play, Polson stripped the rebound of a missed Noel free throw and laid the ball in to give UK a 67-63 lead.

Coach John Calipari had told Polson to stay up on the free-throw attempt in case the rebound went deep into the lane.

"My thought was, if it bounces deep, go get it," Calipari said. "Well, (Polson) just kept going."

Maryland didn't concede. The Cats were in a fight to the finish, and led 70-69 when Polson stepped to the free-throw line with 7.7 seconds to play.

"I was nervous," Polson said. "I was pretty nervous, just not even expecting to play that much, and then being on the line with eight seconds. But we shoot a lot of free throws in practice, so I just tried to stay as calm as possible."

He was calm enough.

Polson swished both, and Maryland's desperation heave at the buzzer was no good.

Though Maryland coach Mark Turgeon admitted he planned "absolutely zero" for Polon, the junior guard suspected he might see a little time.

Starting point guard Ryan Harrow battled the flu this week, and his status for the game was unclear until Friday.

Harrow struggled most of the night, finishing scoreless on 0-for-4 shooting with two assists and a turnover.

Polson more than picked up the slack, giving UK a much-needed boost while playing nearly as many minutes as he saw all of last season, when he logged 31 in 11 games.

"Just seeing him out there playing really hard, I knew he could always do it," Wiltjer said. "Him playing like that really got me excited, and it also got us all excited. When a guy like that plays good, we're just really, really happy for him."

So was his coach, who called Polson's game a "great story."

"I'm proud of Jarrod," Calipari said. "Jarrod's 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 performed. I mean, he was outstanding."

So outstanding that he might even stop hearing those pleas to put up shots at Rupp Arena?

"I don't know," Polson said. "I guess so. I hope so."


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