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Champions Classic: Appling and Michigan State use experience to top Kentucky

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CHICAGO — The matchup of No. 1 Kentucky against No. 2 Michigan State was the much-anticipated “undercard” of Tuesday night’s State Farm Champions Classic at the United Center in Chicago, but for Michigan State and head coach Tom Izzo it was a chance to make an early-season statement.

While many fans — and the estimated 70-plus NBA scouts in attendance in the United Center — were fixated on the latest crop of “one-and-done” freshmen, the experienced Spartans threw the first haymaker of the night and landed it squarely on the jaw of Big Blue Nation.

“We wanted to keep putting them on the ropes,” Michigan State sophomore Gary Harris said. “Punch them in the mouth first before they hit us.”

Jumping out to a 10-0 lead on Kentucky, Michigan State silenced the Wildcat faithful early and held what many consider to be one of the greatest recruiting classes in history scoreless through the first TV timeout.

(MORE: Kentucky lost, but they are going to be just fine in time)

Instead of focusing on Kentucky’s loaded freshman class, college basketball fans were quickly reminded of how good the Spartans were last season.

Senior forward Adreian Payne (15 points) and sophomore guard Gary Harris (20 points) looked like potential lottery picks in the first half, but the tremendous play of senior point guard Keith Appling kept Michigan State in control when Kentucky made a run in the second half.

Payne and Harris combined to go 10-for-14 from the floor in the first half, but Appling — who has been inconsistent at point over the course of his career — handled Kentucky to the tune of 22 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and only three turnovers in 34 minutes.

Appling credits Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo for staying on him and helping him maintain his focus.

“Listening to him and believing in what he was telling me and watching film (helped me grow),” Appling said of Izzo.

“I feel like that comes with growth, being around Coach Izzo, on and off the court, I’ve learned a lot.”

The Spartans perhaps surprised the Wildcats by outscoring them 21-2 on fast break points — thanks in-part to Kentucky’s porous transition defense — but Kentucky outrebounded the Spartans 44-32.

But as Kentucky tied the game at 66-66 with under five minutes to play, Appling knocked in a huge corner three off a pass from Denzel Valentine and Harris made another layup to push the Spartans ahead by five and kept them ahead for good.

Beating the No. 1 team in America front of former Spartan greats like Magic Johnson, Morris Peterson and Jason Richardson was a big early-season moment for Michigan State but as Harris and Appling sat at the podium, they remained focused on their goals in March and April.

“We can’t win a Big Ten championship or a title playing in this game,” Harris said

“It’s a great win, but at the same time we didn’t accomplish anything tonight,” Appling said.

“We want to be No. 1 at the end of the season, not the beginning.”

No. 15 Cincinnati extends home streak, beats Memphis 87-74

CINCINNATI, OH - FEBRUARY 04:  Troy Caupain #10 of the Cincinnati Bearcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Connecticut Huskies at Fifth Third Arena on February 4, 2017 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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CINCINNATI (AP) After a dominant first half, No. 15 Cincinnati relaxed and wound up sweating one out.

Jacob Evans III scored 12 of his 15 points during the Bearcats’ lopsided first half on Thursday night, and they let most of a big lead slip away before holding on for their 25th straight home victory, 87-74 over Memphis.

Cincinnati (25-3, 14-1 American Athletic) led by as many as 24 points during its highest-scoring opening half in conference play this season, pulling ahead 51-32 at the break. The Tigers cut the lead to six points before fading.

“We got off to a big lead, and in the second half I feel we started to coast a little bit,” Evans said. “We can’t do that. If we want to make a deep run in March, we can’t take a half off against any team. Our energy on defense went down.”

The Bearcats’ front line dominated on offense. Gary Clark had 13 points and nine rebounds while Kyle Washington had 16 points and six rebounds. The problem was the sluggish defense in the second half, which left shooters open.

“For about 30 minutes, I thought we played about as well as we can play,” coach Mick Cronin said. “My halftime speech gets an F. I talked to our guys about defense. Our defense was nonexistent for most of the second half. We learned our lessons.”

Memphis (18-10, 8-7 ) has dropped a season-high three straight. Jeremiah Martin led the Tigers with 23 points and 11 assists. Dedric Lawson had 21 points with 10 rebounds.

“They were a little bit intimidated to start the first half because (Cincinnati) was making shots,” Memphis coach Tubby Smith said. “And when you get in a hole like that, it’s tough.”

The Tigers cut the lead to 75-69 on Martin’s three-point play with 5:18 left. Evans’ 3-pointer – his only basket of the second half – ended the comeback. It was his only 3-pointer of the game.

BIG PICTURE

Memphis: Lawson got his 35th double-double, the sixth-most by an active player. His 18 double-doubles this season are a career high for the sophomore. He has 282 rebounds this season. The AAC record is 321 by UConn’s Daniel Hamilton.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats’ 25 straight home wins match the second-longest streak at Fifth Third Arena, which opened in 1989. The arena record is 41 straight wins from 1997-2000.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Bearcats have won four straight since a 60-51 loss at SMU on Feb. 12, minimizing the damage of their only conference loss.

BAD START

The Tigers were playing from behind the entire time because of their horrible start. They missed 10 of their first 15 shots – Lawson was 0 for 3 – while the Bearcats rolled out to a 26-11 lead.

LOOKING UP

Lawson got a loose ball while sitting under the basket in the second half and took a shot that bounced off the rim. After the slow start, he ended up 9 of 16 from the field.

CUMBERLAND BACK

Freshman Jarron Cumberland sat out Cincinnati’s last game because of a curfew violation. He was back on Thursday and had nine points in 22 minutes.

UP NEXT

Memphis: The Tigers host Houston on Saturday. They won at Houston 79-67 in overtime on Jan. 19.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats play at Central Florida on Saturday. They beat Central Florida 60-50 on Feb. 8.

More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org

Five Maine players suspended following a fight over locker room music

DURHAM, NC - DECEMBER 03:  Head coach Bob Walsh of the Maine Black Bears prepares for their game against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on December 3, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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There wasn’t much love being spread in the Maine basketball locker room on Valentine’s Day.

A locker room fight led to the suspensions of five players, including the team’s leading scorer. According to Larry Mahoney of the Bangor Daily News, who obtained the police report, the incident was the result of teammates Wes Myers and Marko Pirovic arguing over locker room music on Feb. 14.

Myers wanted the music off, Pirovic, who stands five inches taller and outweighs Myers by 25 pounds, refused. This led to both throwing punches, one of which connected on Pirovic’s face, breaking his jaw.

Jaquan McKennon, Ilija Stojiljkovic and Dusan Majstorovic were all suspended, but reinstated on Wednesday, for telling head trainer Ryan Taylor that Pirovic’s injuries resulted from him falling in the shower.

Myers, a junior guard averaging a team-best 16.9 points per game, remains suspended indefinitely.

Pirovic declined to press charges. All involved could still face punishment from the university, according to the Bangor Daily News.

It’s been a long season for the Black Bears. Maine owns the America East’s worst record at 6-24 (3-12). Outside of a modest three-game winning streak in late January, the Black Bears have not won a game in 2017. They close out the regular season on Saturday at home against Binghamton.

How did Gary Clark catch that alley-oop?

CINCINNATI, OH - JANUARY 24:  Gary Clark #11 of the Cincinnati Bearcats shoots the ball against the Tulane Green Wave at Fifth Third Arena on January 24, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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No. 15 Cincinnati pounced on Memphis from the start, taking a 51-32 lead into halftime.

Then, Gary Clark decided to add insult to injury to start the second half. Seriously, how did he catch that?

Mick Cronin’s team is much better offensively than in previous seasons. I’m sure fans in the Fifth Third Arena can get used to seeing more plays like this.

Cassius Winston ends half with half-court 3-pointer

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15:  Head coach Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans talks with Cassius Winston #5 in the second half during the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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Michigan State freshman guard Cassius Winston had just one field goal in the first half. And it was a half-court buzzer-beater as the Spartans capped a sizable run to take a 49-31 lead over Nebraska going into the break.

The Spartans ended the half on a 21-5 run.

Winston provided a serious boost off the bench during that stanza. Moments earlier, he helped the Breslin Center erupt when he lobbed a pass off the backboard to teammate Miles Bridges.

Michigan State opened the day projected as one of the final at-large bids in the NCAA Tournament. The margin for error is thing and it appears the Spartans are playing with a sense of urgency.

 

CBT Podcast: Mark Titus recaps Wednesday’s games

LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 22: Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks lays the ball up against JD Miller #15 and Jaylen Fisher #0 of the TCU Horned Frogs in the first half at Allen Fieldhouse on February 22, 2017 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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Wednesday’s slate of games had several wild results.

Former Ohio State walk-on turned blogger turned author Mark Titus, who is currently writing for The Ringer, joined Rob Dauster on the latest episode of the CBT Podcast to go over last night’s games. The two also discussed who is the best team in the nation at the moment, as well Frank Mason III’s rap single from several years ago #BIFM

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and Audioboom