CHICAGO (AP) — Seeing the Kentucky players crying in the locker room was exactly what John Calipari wanted.
The much-hyped and top-ranked Wildcats were humbled 78-74 by No. 2 Michigan State in the Champions Classic on Tuesday night. Julius Randle nearly pulled off a comeback single-handedly, scoring 23 of his 27 points in the second half. But the young Wildcats couldn’t overcome their sloppiness (17 turnovers), defensive lapses or struggles at the foul line, where they made only 20 of 36 attempts.
“You got guys crying in there, which is a good thing,” 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. The last time Calipari had a roster this star-studded, the Wildcats won a national title. And 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.
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 Calipari had been fretting about this game, telling anyone who would listen that his team wasn’t ready.
He was right.
The Spartans are not exactly slouches in the talent department, with Gary Harris, Keith Appling and Adreian Payne. And there’s a big difference between those non-conference patsies Kentucky steamrolled in its first two games and the Spartans. Michigan State wasted no time letting the Wildcats know it.
“Guys were jogging, they were sprinting,” Calipari said. “A couple-bucket game and you give up four of those? Five?”
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 that Willie Cauley-Stein wasn’t expecting, and the ball sailed out of bounds.
“They’re going to get a lot better,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
And with the way they played in the second half, it’s easy to imagine the juggernaut the Wildcats could be come March.
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.
“He’s just a great player. He plays hard all the time,” Alex Poythress said. “When he gets it going, we look for him. He did get it going and we just kept feeding him.”
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 Branden Dawson tipped in a Denzel Valentine miss with less than six seconds left to seal the win.
Appling had 22 points and came within two rebounds and two assists of a triple-double. Harris added 20 points.
“We don’t have enough pride in our defense right now, but that’s natural,” Calipari said. “I’ve got four months to get this right — less than that now.”
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