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UK Basketball: Jarrod Polson raising questions, Coach Cal teaching lessons

Jason Szenes

Former walk-on demonstrates that playing within oneself is good enough to win

With 7.7 seconds remaining on the game clock, and Kentucky up only 70-69 in its season-launching contest against the Maryland Terrapins, Jarrod Polson stepped to the line. As the Big Blue Nation inhaled, some surely daring not to look, Polson calmly and coolly took the ball from the official and sank two game-clinching free throws. It was surreal; it was satisfying; it was the culmination of the former walk-on's game of a lifetime.

Jarrod Polson scored 1,884 points in his high school career at West Jessamine. Coming into Kentucky's game against Maryland in the Barclays Center Classic on Friday night, Polson had scored exactly seven point in his two-year UK career.

But Friday night, in a brand new NBA arena, in the biggest city in the world, Polson came alive and rescued the 'Cats with a flawless 10 point (on 4-5 shooting), three assist (and zero turnovers), one steal night to remember in UK's 72-69 season-opening win over a talented Terps squad. Playing because Ryan Harrow was still feeling the affects of the flu (and because he picked up his second foul before the first media timeout of the game), which caused him to miss valuable practice time, Polson reached for the good stuff and came away smelling like a savior.

"I was just waiting on the opportunity with Harrow feeling a little sick with the flu," Polson said after his surprising performance. "I focused in on practice and was just trying to run the team as best I could."

Playing 22 minutes mostly at the point guard spot, Polson brought both energy and solid decision-making to the floor when the Wildcats needed it most; after Maryland went on a 15-0 run to turn a game verging on becoming a Wildcat blowout, into a tight, possession-by-possession contest.

As the Terps grabbed nearly every available rebound, scoring 19 second chance points for the game (to UK's 11), it was Polson, with just over five minutes remaining and the 'Cats down 63-62, who scored the biggest basket of the game. Aggressively and smartly corralling a Nerlens Noel missed attempt, Polson penetrated the lane and nestled a running shot from 10 feet into the waiting nylon. Polson's put-back basket gave the Wildcats a lead they would never relinquish.

Neither John Wall, nor Eric Bledsoe, nor Brandon Knight, nor Doron Lamb, nor Marquis Teague, could have executed the heads-up play more perfectly. After two years of practicing with those UK (now NBA) stars, Polson has not only perfected the art of playing within himself (knowing what he can and can't do on the court), he's also forged his confidence by competing on a daily basis against some of the best guards in the land.

"Obviously I've been going against some of the best players in the nation every day in practice," Polson said after the game. "Just working hard against them, that got me to where I am today."

Where he is today, is a Big Blue hero. While his more talented but less experienced teammates began to play soft against the Terrapins, as if the game was already won, it was Polson who thankfully continued to execute the game-plan.

"I'm proud of Jarrod," John Calipari said after Polson's game-saving performance. "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 question raised after Polson's performance is -- How much playing time does he deserve going forward? After all, Polson's career-night didn't come against marginally talented Northwood or Transylvania (no offense, Northwood and Transylvania), rather, he played like a champ against Maryland, an ACC team on the rise, with an outstanding coach in Mark Turgeon.

"I told the guys at halftime, ' We should be up 20, but we made it 13, we gave up some dumb things down the stretch (and) now they're going to make a run.'" Cal said matter-of-factly after the game. "It's exactly what we need because I want to know who I have to finish a game with."

Based on Polson's game-changing turn, Cal has found at least one 'Cat who has the confidence and ability to finish while others are still learning. And once the five-star talents get with the program? Well, a steadying influence is always in demand, especially as the games become more meaningful.

Coach Cal uses fund raiser as teaching tool

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari is quickly becoming known as "Chief Wildcat Fund Raiser" when catastrophe strikes, either in this country or abroad. Two years ago, it was the Hoops for Haiti telethon which raised roughly one-million dollars to aid in the Haitian relief effort after an earthquake struck the already impoverished Caribbean nation.

Although Calipari is involved in several philanthropic efforts designed to help local communities, both in Memphis and Lexington, his latest fund raiser, a telethon to help the storm-weary population of the northeast, was unsurprisingly a rousing success -- Cal presented a check to the Red Cross in the amount of one-million dollars prior to UK's match-up with Maryland on Friday night -- thanks to the power of Calipari, and the seemingly never-ending generosity of the Big Blue Nation.

"Well, let me say this; last night we spent and hour on local television; it wasn't even covered in Louisville," Cal said about Wednesday night's telethon. "So you're talking about a poor state and these people stepped up for over two-hundred-thousand dollars. We had matching dollars, we have an auction going on, and I think we're going to be able to present a check for nearly a million dollars Friday, there (in New York) before the game."

Cal, who hails from Moon Township, Pa., knows all too well the locales most affected by superstorm Sandy and the massive snow storm which has further tortured those attempting to recover. What Calipari has seen and heard about the circumstances in the country's northeastern shoreline, touched home with the UK coach.

"I've been in touch with my friends (from the area) and I'm stunned. When I saw what happened in the Queens area (of New York), those are neighborhoods we grew up in," Cal said about the devastation. "When you talk about the Jersey Shore, Staten Island, you're talking working class people.

"When you talk the Jersey Shore people may think those are wealthy people. No, they're not. Those are fishing villages; Seaside (Heights), Ortley (Beach), Lavalette, Ocean Beach, Normandy Beach, those are all fishing villages and those homes were turned over to families for generations. And now, wiped out."

Cal is fully aware that the need of the people in those areas far outweighs what many agencies are able to do to help, which was the impetus for him and WKYT teaming up for the telethon.

"I just think what we're trying to do and what we did last night (the telethon) ... the Red Cross is not rebuilding Staten Island or Queens. What it's doing (the Red Cross) is helping people survive right now. So this money, with the storm that followed it up, now there's snow and cold. It's amazing what people have gone through. I just think we can't forget about it. Like, OK, it happened last week. These people are still suffering right now, and that's why we did it."

Doing for others. That's the message Calipari wants to send to not only the BBN, but also his young, impressionable players.

Today, with an evolving media climate which turns teenagers with basketball skills into overnight super stars, Cal obviously feels its important to teach his players that they don't exist in a Big Blue vacuum. Cal essentially says, there are other people in the world, some living in desperate times, and here's one way to help those living under unfortunate circumstances.

"Well, first of all, my job is to care about my kids, and their job is to care about each other," Calipari said. "And that's what I tell them every daily. This (the telethon) is another example of just trying to tell them, we've all been blessed. That could have been your family and just to tell them use what you've been given, which is a blessing, and make sure you pass it along and be thankful everyday because fate intervenes in our lives many times. Some of it good, some of it like, what did I do to deserve this? Fate intervenes, and you want to tell (the players), when you're in a position you're in, to have an impact. To help others, you always step up and do it. You (should) feel blessed you have the opportunity to do it."

Make no mistake, Calipari was hired three years ago to win basketball games and hang championship linen from the rafters of Rupp Arena, but the manner in which he teaches his youthful players to be philanthropic, to care and act for the benefit of others is, in the larger scheme of things, even more important to the future of the men he coaches.

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