CHICAGO — As the buzzer sounded and his Michigan State teammates raced onto the court to celebrate, Gary Harris held his index finger aloft.
No doubt about who’s No. 1.
For now, at least.
Branden Dawson tipped in a miss with less than six seconds left, and the No. 2 Spartans hung on for a 78-74 victory over top-ranked Kentucky and its latest cast of phenoms in the first game of the Champions Classic on Tuesday night.
“We want to be No. 1 at the end of the season,” Keith Appling said. “Not the beginning.”
Keep playing like this and the Spartans (2-0) are sure to be in the conversation come the end of March.
Kentucky, too. After trailing by as much as 13 in the second half, looking like the freshmen most of them are, the Wildcats (2-1) showed why there’s so much hype surrounding them. Julius Randle almost beat the Spartans single-handedly, scoring 23 of his 27 points in the second half and making a jumper with 42 seconds left that cut Michigan State’s lead to 76-74.
But Dawson tipped in a miss by Denzel Valentine, and James Young missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“You got guys crying in there, which is a good thing,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I want it to hurt like that. I knew this would get their attention. The biggest thing is if you don’t do this together, you won’t win. You’ll never be a special team.”
This was the earliest 1 vs. 2 match-up, and first since Feb. 23, 2008, when Tennessee beat top-ranked Memphis. The Tigers coach then? None other than Calipari.
This game had even more hype, mostly because of the Kiddie Cats. Much has been made of the youngsters, with good reason. The last time Calipari had a roster this star-studded, the Wildcats won a national title.
This group might be even more impressive.
Six were McDonald’s All-Americans, and all are considered lottery picks in next summer’s NBA draft, with Randle a possibility for the overall No. 1. The youngsters did nothing to lessen the hype in their first two games, with Randle averaging 22.5 points and 15 rebounds, and the Harrison twins averaging in double figures. No wonder the game brought out scouts from almost every NBA team and celebrities including Nazr Mohammed and Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
But the Spartans aren’t exactly slouches, returning six of their top seven scorers. Just as important, big-time games like this are nothing new to them, with Izzo routinely scheduling the likes of Connecticut, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas before Jan. 1.
“They’re really good,” Calipari said. “This is the second game out and they go 17 assists to seven turnovers? That’s unbelievable. Again, understand we’re not the greatest defensive team, but 17 and seven? With these lights and all that’s going on around them? They’re well coached. They played well.”
Appling came within two rebounds and two assists of a triple-double, finishing with 22 points, and eight rebounds and assists. Harris had 20 points and Adreian Payne had 15 points and four rebounds for the Spartans.
Kentucky had strolled through its first two games, with Randle and the other freshmen coming up big. But there’s a big difference between those non-conference patsies and Michigan State, and the Spartans let the Wildcats know what they were up against from the opening tip.
Smothering the Wildcats defensively and leaving them flat-footed with their surprising speed on offense, Michigan State had a 10-0 lead before Kentucky got its first bucket. The ‘Cats had seven turnovers before the midway point of the first half, and would finish with 17.
And it was clear that, with four freshmen in the starting lineup and another getting heavy playing time, the Wildcats are still getting used to each other, too. At one point, Andrew Harrison rifled a no-look pass to Willie Cauley-Stein that Cauley-Stein wasn’t expecting, and the ball sailed out of bounds.
They struggled at the line, too, going just 20 of 36.
“They’re going to get a lot better. Give them credit,” Izzo said. “But I thought we played awfully well for a lot of that game.”
Still, the Spartans got in foul trouble midway through the second half, and the slower pace gave the Wildcats time to catch their breath and regroup. It also gave a seething Randle an opportunity to work out his anger.
“What I loved about him, he gritted his teeth, was ornery and nasty and he wanted to put them on his shoulders,” Izzo said. “For a freshman, that speaks volumes. He completely did that. You could see it and hear him. Tough kid.”
Randle scored nine points in a 13-1 run that cut Michigan State’s lead to 60-59 with 8:05 left, including a “How’d he do that?” off-balance jumper from behind a sea of green jerseys. He and Andrew Harrison each made a pair of free throws to tie the game at 66 with 4:48 left.
But Appling drilled a 3, and Harris stripped Randle at the other end. He took it in for a layup that put the Spartans back in front, 71-66, bringing the Michigan State fans — including Spartan in Chief, Magic Johnson — to their feet.
Randle wasn’t done just yet, however. After Andrew Harrison’s free throws Kentucky within 76-72 with 1:33 to play, the Wildcats pounced on an Appling turnover and Randle scored on a jumper. But Dawson’s tip-in sealed the win.
“I keep reiterating: They’re going to get a lot better,” Izzo said. “But I honestly believe so will we.”