The No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats started their season with a win that will register well into March.
Kentucky defeated the No. 1 Michigan State Spartans 69-62 at the 2019 Champions Classic on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It was a massive showdown between programs featuring 27 combined Final Fours, 10 combined national championships and legendary coaches in Tom Izzo and John Calipari.
It also represented the first time the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the Associated Press poll played each other on the opening day of the season, and Tyrese Maxey made sure the SEC representative marked the occasion with a win by taking over the game down the stretch.
The freshman drilled the biggest shot of the night from well beyond the arc with his team nursing a two-point lead with one minute remaining and was the best player on the floor in a game featuring Player of the Year candidate Cassius Winston.
Notable Player Stats
- KY G Tyrese Maxey: 26 points, five rebounds and two assists on 7-of-13 shooting from the field
- KY G Ashton Hagans: 11 points, three rebounds and two assists on 3-of-9 shooting from the field
- KY G Immanuel Quickley: 10 points, four rebounds and two assists on 1-of-5 shooting from the field
- MSU G Cassius Winston: 21 points, four assists and two rebounds on 5-of-12 shooting from the field
Tyrese Maxey Announces His Presence to the Nation in Dramatic Fashion
It's fitting that a freshman starred for Calipari's side even though the Wildcats brought back guard Ashton Hagans, guard Immanuel Quickley, forward EJ Montgomery and big man Nick Richards as experienced contributors.
With that foursome and some of the freshmen-created depth, the Wildcats have size and athleticism all over the court. They have the potential to be one of the top defensive teams in the country, and they put it on display by consistently switching on ball screens for Winston and challenging perimeter shots.
Even a decent offense will put Calipari's bunch in the middle of the national title race, and Maxey provided scoring in bunches as a spark plug off the bench.
Sam Vecenie @Sam_Vecenie
Kentucky’s offense is just different with Maxey in, and it’s not just the shooting. Just such a smart, natural feel for when to create and when to push in transition, versus when to distribute and make plays for his teammates. Awesome scorer, but it’s been more than that tonight
He unleashed a deep three in the first half to give Kentucky the lead and made another long triple in the second half when Michigan State was storming back with plenty of momentum. His shooting tilted the Spartans defense at times and created space for himself and others, but he also proved he could attack the rim and score with well-timed floaters.
Alongside Hagans and Quickley, Maxey was part of the trio of guards who were too much for Michigan State in the first half, and then he went into takeover mode when the game was hanging in the balance.
He quickly pushed a three-point lead with less than six minutes remaining to seven by scoring in the lane, creating a turnover and dishing to a wide-open Hagans. He mixed in rebounding on the defensive side and also pushed a four-point advantage to six with another driving basket in the final three minutes.
Yet it was his memorable three-pointer in crunch time that served as the exclamation mark to a head-turning debut.
Michigan State is Much Better Than Tuesday's Showing
The Spartans were No. 1 in the country based on last season's Final Four appearance and the return of Winston as a veteran leader who can control the pace, dictate play in key stretches and thrive in clutch moments.
However, they were short-handed against the Wildcats without the injured Joshua Langford and with Kyle Ahrens at less than 100 percent.
What's more, Xavier Tillman, who is expected to lead their interior attack on the blocks, and Aaron Henry, who serves as a valuable perimeter defender to take some pressure off Winston, dealt with foul trouble and found themselves on the bench as Kentucky built a double-digit lead in the first half.
Their absence prevented Michigan State from establishing a rhythm and forced Winston to carry much of the offensive load as a scorer and creator. Things got even more difficult when the senior leader picked up his fourth foul with more than seven minutes remaining.
Despite all the factors working against them, the Spartans were still one or two possessions away from earning a victory. Had they made more than five of their 26 three-point attempts (19.2 percent), they likely would have won.
When Michigan State gets Langford back and isn't in constant foul trouble, it will be on the shortlist of national title contenders. Fortunately for Kentucky, that wasn't the case on Tuesday.
Kentucky hosts Eastern Kentucky on Friday, while Michigan State hosts Binghamton on Sunday.