All day word hung around midtown about the nation's top collegiate player--who surely would have sidestepped the college experience and bolted to the NBA from high school (if not for David Stern's age rule)--lighting up Madison Square Garden.
UConn v.s. Kentucky, John Wall at the Garden.
The latter seemed like the perfect match.
John Wall. The projected first pick of the 2010 draft. A human highlight reel. An extraterrestrial baller with more springy bounce than a trampoline. The real deal, a player who John Calipari now says is a few levels ahead of where Derek Rose was at two years ago.
The Garden. The bright lights, the grand stage, the star-spangled crowd and the media circus.
The proving ground for any young, blossoming player.
And so it was the finest performance of the season for Wall, who dropped a game-high 25 points (12 of Kentucky's final 15) and produced the game-winning play to lead the No.4 Wildcats past No.14 UConn, 64-61, during the SEC/Big East Invitational Wednesday night.
Wall capped a frenetic paced second half that featured various lead changes and momentum swings. He drove to the left, finished strong in traffic and absorbed a foul from UConn's Alex Oriakhi, causing blue-clad sections of the World's Most Famous Arena to erupt.
Wall calmly netted the free throw, giving Kentucky a 63-61 edge. UConn missed four shots, including a Stanley Robinson putback attempt, that would have sent the game into overtime.
Ramon Harris hit the first of two free throws to all but ice it. The Huskies' Gavin Edwards, who was exceptional, forced an off-balance three-pointer before Kemba Walker missed a jumper, and the 11-0 Wildcats scored its second straight victory over a ranked opponent. Cal's crew eked out a 68-66 win over No.10 North Carolina on Saturday.
"We were groping for offense, and we just gave it to (Wall) and said 'make some baskets,'" said Calipari.
"We rode John Wall at the end of the game. There's no harder worker on our team."
Wall shot the rock at a 10-for-16 clip. He added seven steals, albeit he committed seven turnovers.
Kentucky came out of the gates blazing.
The Wildcats started the game on an electrifying 12-0 run. UConn responded with an 10-0 surge of their own, with off guard Jerome Dyson (17 points) threading into the lane and scoring.
Kentucky thwarted the run on a basket by Eric Bledsoe, who fouled out in 23-plus minutes.
"We drank the poison in the first half," said Calipari.
"We didn't make three passes the whole first half. We go up 12, and they're celebrating like we just won a national title. I'm trying to calm them down."
Wall, who starred at WORD OF GOD Academy in Raleigh, N.C., was forcing the issue in the first half. He showed the patience of JOB in the second, hitting a timely trey to give Kentucky a 44-40 edge while letting the game come to him.
"In the first half, I kind of tried to do my own thing," said Wall, he of the thick southern drawl.
"So, the second half I tried to do whatever I can to run the plays and then at the end get the ball."
Wall's titanic slam plus the foul gave Kentucky a 53-47 lead with 7:16 remaining. He completed the traditional three-point play, giving Kentucky a seven-point lead.
The Huskies came roaring back from the deficit. A two-handed dunk by Gavin Edwards (16 points, eight boards, three blocks) sliced the deficit to one, 56-55, capping off an 8-2 run.
But there was Wall, vaulting himself into the air and banking a shot he was forced into to up the Wildcats' lead.
"If we need a big basket we look for John," said Patrick Patterson, who scored 16 points.
"He was able to knock down some key shots, drive to the basket, and had some great defensive plays out there. We have a long way to go. This is just another step towards being that great team we want to be."
Dyson and Kemba Walker executed UConn's souped-up offense. Walker shredded up defenders as if it was a regular day on Gotham's streetball circuit. The New York City native stuffed the stat sheet to the tune of 12 points, six dimes, and eight rebounds.
With 1:12 remaining, Kemba dribbled to the elbow, froze a defender with a pump fake and buried a jumper, giving UConn a 61-60 lead.
That's when Wall exploded to the cup in traffic, producing the game-winning three-point play with 31 ticks remaining.
"He's no freshman, he's a great player," said Calhoun. "I think if any guy dominated the game, he won the game."