Rap music blared with Jay-Z courtside at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the jet-black arena with the Mobius strip facade where ESPN cameras set up shop to watch the defending NCAA champion play on a parquet NBA floor, with the Maryland men’s basketball team as a mere side act to the show. And with a double-digit lead at halftime, Kentucky appeared primed for a blowout to open its title defense.
But these Terrapins, spurred by youth and reinvigorated with a fresh start after an abysmal opening 20 minutes of shooting, clawed back with a 13-0 run that sent the contingent of College Park faithful swooning for an upset of the third-ranked Wildcats. Ultimately, however, Kentucky hit the necessary free throws down the stretch, barely escaping with a 72-69 win that demonstrated plenty about the resiliency of Coach Mark Turgeon’s bunch.
A reloaded Kentucky team, which lost six players in June’s NBA draft, turned to a thin bench to help bring the lead back to 68-63, before a Charles Mitchell tip-in cut it to 68-65 with less than two minutes remaining. After corralling a defensive rebound, Dez Wells, two days removed from being declared eligible for the season after transferring from Xavier in August, went coast-to-coast, taking a hard spill by a television cameraman. With Mitchell in his ear, telling him, “We need you now,” Wells missed the second of two free throws that kept the Terps down 68-66.