Kentucky coach John Calipari indicated earlier this week that his young team wasn't ready for a challenge like Michigan State. The Spartans made it clear just how right Calipari was—at least in the first half.
Michigan State took advantage of Kentucky's inexperience, flustered the Wildcats early, held on late and likely claimed their spot as the No. 1 team in the country with a 78-74 win at the 2013 Champions Classic in Chicago at the United Center.
Though the Spartans never trailed Tuesday, they needed clutch plays at critical times from their veteran leaders. Branden Dawson tipped a Denzel Valentine miss in with just over five seconds remaining, giving his team a two-possession cushion that helped finally stave off Kentucky's comeback attempt.
“We made some mistakes in the second half, but that’s because they’re a good team.” Izzo said.
Kentucky's struggles at the charity stripe (20-36), ball handling issues (17 turnovers) and lack of ball movement (just six assists) haunted them throughout their first meaningful contest as a unit.
Keith Appling, a senior guard, scored a team-high 22 points, grabbed seven rebounds and had seven assists to lead the way for the Spartans. Gary Harris scored 15 of his 20 points in the first half and big man Adreian Payne added 15, as the Spartans' cabal of experience paid huge dividends in a tale of two halves.
Just days after Calipari sheepishly said that playing the Spartans was "unfair," Tom Izzo's squad wasted no time making that look like an apt descriptor.
Michigan State opened the game on a 10-0 run, forcing Kentucky's four freshmen starters into bad turnovers and scoring with ease in transition. The Wildcats had five of their nine first-half turnovers in their first 10 possessions. They were held scoreless for nearly the first five opening minutes before guard James Young, one of the few Kentucky freshman not overwhelmed, hit a three-pointer with 15:20 remaining on the clock.
The Spartans made up for their athletic disadvantage with basketball smarts. Izzo had his players switching on screens and packing the paint hard to cramp Kentucky's spacing and force them into contested shots.
Young was one of Calipari's only positives in the first half, scoring 15 of his 19 points in the first 20 minutes.
Playing before 68 NBA scouts in attendance at the United Center to watch him, Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and other potential lottery selections, Kentucky forward Julius Randle proved a formidable foe—but not until the second half.
In the first, Randle looked every bit as overmatched as any of his teammates. Matched up against the equally physical Payne and a collapsing Spartans attack, Randle had as many turnovers as points in the first half (four) and struggled on the defensive end. Payne used his versatile inside-outside game effectively, at one point scoring 10 straight Spartans points, stretching their lead to 36-21 with 3:20 remaining in the first half.
When Randle and the Wildcats walked into the half down 44-32, it looked like the 6'9'' forward who had been so dominant in Kentucky's first two games was laying an egg under the white-hot spotlight.
Randle turned over a new leaf immediately after the second-half whistle. Randle started out aggressive with three straight buckets close to the basket as part of an 8-2 run that brought Kentucky within six at 46-40. Andrew Harrison and Randle then combined for turnovers on three straight possessions, and the Michigan State lead was back to 12 inside four minutes into the half.
But Kentucky wasn't done making runs. With Payne on the bench having picked up his third foul early, the Wildcats pounded the ball inside to Randle. Overpowering Matt Costello and any other big the Spartans threw his way, Randle overcame triple teams, drew fouls and finished strong at the rim. Starting with a Randle jumper with 11:15 remaining in the second half, the Wildcats went on a 13-1 run.
Suddenly, Michigan State's 59-46 lead had evaporated into a 60-59 advantage with 8:05 left on the clock. The Wildcats tied the game at 66-66 for the first time since the opening tip on Randle's free throws a little more than three minutes later.
“I thought we quit running a little bit, and they killed us on the boards,” Izzo said. “That doesn’t happen very often, but with Payne out of there, we were a little smaller and that hurt us.”
Randle finished his night with a game-high 27 points and 13 rebounds, getting to the line 15 times and making nine.
“They’re probably just going to have to double him,” Payne said of defending Randle. “He’s a great player; he’s got a quick first step.
But just as soon as the momentum seemed to be shifting, Appling hit a clutch corner three, and Kentucky coughed the ball up on their subsequent possession, giving the Spartans a 71-66 lead they wouldn't relinquish.
It was the story of the night for Calipari's squad, which finished with 17 turnovers to its opponent's seven. Randle, despite his brilliant outing, led all players with eight of those mistakes.
It was also a frustrating night for Aaron and Andrew Harrison. The highly touted twins shot a combined 4 of 13 from the field, combining for more turnovers (seven) than field goals made (four). Andrew Harrison, considered by many to be the best point guard in the 2014 NBA draft class, continued his quiet start to his collegiate career with 11 points as Appling harassed him into five turnovers.
Fouls also played a major factor for both sides, with the NCAA's new emphasis on hand-checking putting both teams in trouble. The two teams combined for 46 personal fouls and 53 free-throw attempts. Every player on Michigan State's frontcourt rotation had at least two fouls by the end of the second half, and Harris was the only Spartans starter with fewer than three fouls.
This was the first meeting between the top two teams in the Associated Press poll in five years, and this was the earliest in a season that the two top-ranked teams have played each other in college basketball history. It was also the first time the two national powers have met since 2005. With consecutive victories, the Spartans have now closed the gap on Kentucky's all-time record between the two schools to 12-11.
|F Matt Costello||C-|
|C Adreian Payne||B-|
|G Gary Harris||B|
|G Keith Appling||A-|
|G Branden Dawson||C+|
|G Denzel Valentine||C-|
|G Travis Trice||C|
|F Gavin Schilling||C|
|F Alex Gauna||C|
|F Willie Cauley-Stein||C|
|F Julius Randle||A-|
|G James Young||B|
|G Aaron Harrison||D|
|G Andrew Harrison||C-|
|F Alex Poythress||B-|
|C Dakari Johnson||B-|
|F Marcus Lee||C|
|G Dominique Hawkins||C|
Co-Players of the Game: Julius Randle (F, Kentucky), Keith Appling (G, Michigan State)
No one viewing at home or at the United Center has any questions about who was the best player on the floor. Randle, despite his miserable first half and propensity for turnovers, proved himself as worth every bit of his prodigious hype. He was at times the only cog in the Wildcats' comeback effort, drawing double teams, ripping through a morass in the middle and showing an encouraging, fiery competitiveness.
Here is how physically dominant Randle was:
How many Spartans does it take to guard Julius Randle? pic.twitter.com/GrIJsE1TfP— Sporting News (@sportingnews) November 13, 2013
In a word: yikes.
But on the other side was Appling, whose narrative pull is going to make so many Michigan-based columnists' lives easier on Tuesday night. With seemingly every employed NBA scout and coach on an off night in attendance to watch a crop of hyped youngsters, a guy who feels like he's been around since I was in middle school had an all-around virtuoso performance.
Filling it up on offense and frustrating Kentucky's young guards on the perimeter defensively, Appling finished with a LeBron James-like stat line. He hit open shooters, corralled defensive boards when Payne was out of the game and hit arguably the game's biggest shot when Kentucky had tied it at 66-66.
Michigan State and Kentucky will both ratchet down their difficulty levels with their upcoming slates. The Spartans are scheduled to play Columbia on Friday, while the Wildcats have a lengthier reprieve before their matchup with Robert Morris on Sunday.
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