Wall’s legend grows
NEW YORK – Moments after her only son left his mark on Madison Square Garden – after Kentucky freshman John Wall proved once more why he is the best college basketball player in America – Frances Pulley stood in Section 88 of the nation’s most historic basketball venue and couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed.
Strangers were giving her congratulatory pats on the back while autograph seekers waited for Wall to finish a television interview at center court. When he finally exited through the tunnel, fans began chanting his name.
Watching it all from the stands, Pulley wiped away a tear.
“Unbelievable,” she said softly to a well-wisher. “Unbelievable.”
There really wasn’t any other way to describe the mood after Wall scored 25 points and made the game-winning basket in Kentucky’s 64-61 victory over Connecticut on Wednesday night. The projected No. 1 pick in next summer’s NBA draft, everyone knew that Wall was a talented basketball player.
But no one – not even his mother – knew he was this good.
“He’s all of that,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. “Whatever all of that is, he is all of that. He’s no freshman.”
Indeed, first-year players don’t give performances like the one Wall turned against the Huskies – especially not ones competing in their eighth college game in an environment like the one that awaited Kentucky.
Luminaries such as Pat Riley and Bob Knight were in the crowd and scores of NBA scouts watched from near courtside. A fight broke out in the stands and fans from each team booed and hissed, upset over the distraction.
From the opening tip to the final minutes, everyone in the arena was wound tight with tension and angst. Everyone, that is, except Wall.
“At the end,” Patrick Patterson said, “John wanted the ball.”
So the Wildcats gave it to him. Trailing 61-60 as the final seconds ticked away, Wall came off a screen, blew past three defenders on his way to the basket and somehow made a layup despite being knocked off his feet on a foul by 240-pound Connecticut forward Alex Oriakhi. Wall swished the free throw to finish off the three-point play to give the Wildcats a 63-61 lead with 30.8 seconds remaining.
No. 14 Connecticut had two more chances to either tie or force overtime, but guard Kemba Walker – who had been taunting the Wildcats and smirking at them all game – misfired on both of the Huskies’ final possessions.
“We rode John Wall until the end of the game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We were broken on offense, so we just gave it to him and said, ‘Make some baskets.’”
The victory gives fourth-ranked Kentucky a 9-0 record heading into Saturday’s game at Indiana. But Calipari continues to point out that the Wildcats are winning because of their will and not because they’re executing the offense or limiting mental mistakes.
Calipari said his team needs to quit listening to the praise it’s receiving from the outside and focus on getting better. Four of Kentucky’s nine victories have come by single digits.
“We’re 4-5 right now,” Calipari said. “I told them that we need to stop drinking the poison and do better in practice.”
Still, as long as Wall is on the court, the Wildcats have a chance.
It’s been quite awhile since college basketball has seen a point guard as talented as Wall. Calipari has already said Wall is playing better than Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans were at this stage of their freshmen seasons at Memphis. Rose and Evans were drafted No. 1 and No. 4, respectively, after just one year of college.
Last week North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Wall is the best point guard prospect since Jason Kidd, who starred at Cal nearly 20 years ago.
The one thing that was evident Wednesday is that Kentucky is a spectacular basketball team when Wall is on the court – and a mediocre one when he isn’t.
The Wildcats opened the game on a 12-0 run that included six points, two steals and two assists from Wall. But when Wall went to the bench with foul trouble – he played just nine minutes before intermission – the Wildcats let Connecticut back in the game and trailed 29-23 at halftime.
Wall, though, took over after the break and was especially dominant during crunch time. He scored 12 of his team’s final 15 points, continuing his trend of strong performances in close games. Wall made a buzzer-beater to foil Miami (Ohio) in his first college game, made some huge baskets to force overtime in a win over Stanford and then made some clutch foul shots in Saturday’s two-point win against North Carolina.
The funny thing is that the main concern Calipari had about Wall when he was recruiting him was how well he’d perform in close games.
“That wasn’t just my question, it was everyone’s question,” Calipari said. “But there’s no harder worker on the team. I think he’s building his own self-esteem, his own confidence.”
Now Calipari is hoping his other players will follow suit. The most encouraging thing, the coach said, is their attitudes. Earlier this week, after he noticed Wall garnering more and more media attention and buzz, Calipari stood before the team and asked if anyone was bothered by the fanfare surrounding Wall.
“Patrick,” Calipari said to Patterson, “do you have a problem? They’re not talking about you. They’re talking about [Wall] and he’s averaging seven turnovers.”
“I don’t care,” Patterson said.
Then another member of the team put the conversation to rest.
“You know, Coach,” he said, “he is pretty good.”
Now the Wildcats know how good.
And the rest of America does, too.