CHICAGO — No. 2 Michigan State, the national title favorite chocked full of veteran all-americans, had completely outclassed their more hyped counterparts from Kentucky on Tuesday night, riding the hot hands of Adreian Payne and Gary Harris to a first half lead that grew to as much as 15-points.
But Kentucky came back. They fought and they scrapped and they rode the broad shoulders of potential No. 1 pick Julius Randle, tying the game at 66 when Randle knocked down a pair of free throws with just under five minutes left in the game. The Wildcats had all the momentum, making their run despite the inability to make a free throw, and the fans in green and white had come to expect the worst.
Keith Appling had an answer, however. The senior point guard put a bow on one of the best games of his career, drilling a three from the corner to break the tie. On the ensuing inbounds, Andrew Harrison, Kentucky’s freshman point guard, threw the ball directly to Harris, who went right to the rim and scored, giving the Spartans a five point lead they would never relinquish. Tom Izzo’s club would go on to win 78-74.
Appling finished with 22 points, eight assists, seven boards and four steals while Harris chipped in with 20 points and Payne added 15 of his own.
Branden Dawson finished with eight points and nine boards, three of which came on the offensive end. His tip-in with 5.8 seconds left in the game was the final margin, giving the Spartans a two-possession lead.
Down the stretch, it was the veteran leadership of Michigan State that shined through. The Spartans made big plays when they were needed. They hit big shots in pressure moments. And outside of a questionable turnnover by Appling in the final minute, generally played flawless basketball when the lights were shining the brightest.
Kentucky? They missed open threes. They couldn’t hit free throws, going 20-36 from the charity stripe. The Harrison twins reacted poorly on too many calls that didn’t go their way. You know what that’s a sign of? Youth. Inexperience. A bunch of freshmen playing their first game with real pressure.
The talent on the Wildcats roster is simply undeniable. Julius Randle finished with 27 points and 13 boards, numbers that would have looked even better if he hadn’t committed eight turnovers. Trust me when I say this: the hype surrounding Kentucky is real. It’s deserved.
And if anything, a loss this early in the season will help. You wanna know a good way to burnout a bunch of 19 year olds? Turn every game they play into the pursuit of a perfect season.
Kentucky will be fine.
There’s no shame in losing the way Kentucky lost.