BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- The most unlikely of heroes made sure the national champions began their title defense on the right foot.
Jarrod Polson, a junior guard who came to Kentucky as a walk-on, scored a career-high 10 points and came up with several clutch plays down the stretch Friday night in helping the Wildcats hold off Maryland, 72-69, in the season opener at the Barclays Center Classic.
"I was so happy for him," UK coach John Calipari said. "You just want guys to have success who work hard. This kid's working his butt off and waiting for his opportunity. It came, and he was ready for it.
"I mean, Jarrod played well."
Polson, who had scored all of seven points in his UK career and never more than two in any contest, tallied six in the decisive final minutes of Friday's game as the Cats teetered on the edge of defeat.
The first big play was a rebound and putback after Maryland had seized a 63-62 lead with 5:10 remaining. Polson then recorded a steal and lay-in with 3:42 to go after teammate Nerlens Noel had missed a pair of free throws with a razor-thin two-point lead.
And leading by just one with 7.7 seconds remaining, Polson knocked down two pressure-packed free throws that provided the winning margin as Maryland's last-second 3-pointer missed the mark.
"He's worked hard, and he's not afraid," Calipari said of the former Nicholasville (Ky.) West Jessamine standout. "I'm comfortable with him. He's steady. I can go with him and know that he's not going to hurt us.
"He played pick-and-roll defense better than the other guards played it. They got hung up on it; he did pretty good with it."
Polson's heroics helped Kentucky (1-0) hold off a furious charge by Maryland (0-1), which trailed by as many as 15 points in both halves. The Terrapins were able to chip away at the lead with some relentless play on the glass. They out-rebounded the Cats 54-38 and held an overwhelming 28-13 edge in offensive boards, leading to 19 second-chance points.
A 21-4 run gave Maryland a 59-57 lead going down the stretch. The Cats went more than six minutes without a field goal and committed seven of their 12 turnovers during that span.
But some of those issues were expected from a young team which did not have a single player who started a game last season. It was the rebounding column that irked Calipari the most.
Asked what he learned about his team in the opener, the UK boss said "We're not a very good defensive rebounding team. We've got guys who won't squeeze balls, they won't check out. They just run to the rim, and balls go over their heads. We wouldn't track them down. We wanted someone else to rebound the ball. It was kind of embarrassing."
Kentucky's rebounding issues obscured an otherwise strong defensive performance. The Cats held Maryland to 33-percent shooting (25 of 75) from the field and allowed only three of 19 makes from beyond the arc. UK also picked up where it left off last season with 11 blocked shots, led by Willie Cauley-Stein with four and three each from Noel and Kyle Wiltjer.
Wiltjer paced the UK offense with 19 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the floor and made four of his six treys. He also had six rebounds. Archie Goodwin followed with 16 points, including a 9-of-11 effort at the free throw line. Noel led the Cats with nine rebounds.
Center Alex Len powered the Terps with a game-high 23 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots.
Kentucky returns to action Tuesday against Duke in the State Farm Champions Classic in Atlanta. It will mark the first meeting between the perennial NCAA powerhouses since 2002.
* Kentucky is 9-5 all-time against Maryland.
* UK is now 90-19 in season openers and 4-0 under John Calipari.
* The Cats improved to 127-62 all-time against ACC teams.
* UK is 43-16 all-time in the New York metro area.
Cats go to Jarrod
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