As the Kentucky Wildcats limped to their bench during the first TV timeout in the Champions Classic in Chicago, Julius Randle’s observation about Michigan State’s comparatively vast experience (it doesn’t mean anything, Randle had told reporters after the win over Northern Kentucky) seemed like heresy, if not lunacy.
Sure enough, the Spartans came out and blew the doors off the Big Blue Machine, racing off to a 10-0 lead, en route to a 44-32- halftime advantage. And with 11:32 left to play, the young Wildcats were down 13.
But with 4:48 left, exactly 35 minutes and 12 seconds into the game, the Cats evidently had all the experience they needed. They had tied the game at 66.
Julius Randle, all but ineffective in the first half, rewarded the small army of NBA scouts who had made their way to the Windy City to see gaggle of future professionals, with prospects on both teams. Randle shone the brightest.
The freshman from suburban Dallas finished with 27 points (all but four in the second half) and 13 rebounds and almost single-handedly brought Kentucky back. And while he and his teammates managed to make the crowd temporarily forget his brash pre-game comments, in the end, the second-ranked Spartans had just enough moxie to hold off the top-ranked Wildcats, 78-74.
For nearly seven minutes, as they mounted their comeback, it was Kentucky with all the answers, as Michigan State, which returned six of its seven leading scorers from last season, fell cold and quiet. UK trailed 60-55 when, with the shot clock running down, Randle bulled his way into the lane and put up a soft jumper over three Spartans. It found the net and the Cats were down just three.
Andrew Harrison dropped in a layup to make it 60-59, and after both he and Randle sank free throws, Kentucky had knotted it up. Unfortunately, that’s when the Wildcats went back to looking like a collection of freshmen.
Somebody ran off and forgot about MSU’s senior point guard Keith Appling, who drilled a three-pointer to make it 63-60. “I remember the game against North Carolina,” Calipari said, referring to a monumental matchup early in the 2011-12 championship season, when the Tarheels had an open look for a game-winning three. “Anthony Davis blocked that shot.” But not this time.
Then Kentucky reverted to the same kind of sloppy play that dragged it down in the first half, as another veteran, Gary Harris, stripped Randle of the ball and sailed in for an easy layup and an insurmountable five-point lead.
The Cats still managed to make it a two-point game with 25 seconds left on a jumper by Randle, but the heady Spartans worked inside, with Denzel Valentine tipping in an errant shot with five seconds left for the final margin.
In the end, experience did count. But so did missed free throws. The Wildcats bricked 16 of their 36 chances, and also turned it over 17 times to just seven by the Spartans, who victimized UK’s transition defense by scoring 21 fast-break points, to just two for Kentucky.
What helped bring the Cats back was outrebounding Sparty by a dozen. But ironically enough, it was UK forgetting to box out that allowed State the easy putback, which gave it an insurmountable margin with five seconds left.
According to Calipari, after the game there were players crying in his locker room – a good thing, he said, recalling that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had wept after Indiana’s upset of the eventual national champions. “I want it to hurt like that,” the UK coach said.
No matter how many games the Wildcats win, this one will hurt all year – provided this team develops the same killer instinct Kidd-Gilchrist and company had. Randle certainly played as though he has it. Now it’s a question of how many of the others will fall in line.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)