NEW YORK — We entered the Champions Classic wondering who, if anyone, would be the star of this iteration of the Kentucky Wildcats.
I think we have an answer: Tyrese Maxey.
Despite coming off the bench, and after going scoreless for the first 10 minutes on Tuesday night, Maxey made his presence known in Madison Square Garden. He finished with 26 points on 7-for-13 shooting, scoring half of Kentucky’s points in the final 30 minutes of their 69-62 win over No. 1 Michigan State.
All the evidence you need is what happened on the biggest possession of the game.
Michigan State had whittled a double-digit deficit down to just 62-60 with 1:30 left on the clock. The ensuing Kentucky possession was not their best. The ball ended up in Maxey’s hands with the shot clock running down and, well, this happened:
Should I mention that he grabbed what essentially turned into the game-clinching rebound just 15 seconds later?
“I shot that shot 1,000 times in high school. I shot it 1,000 times this summer,” Maxey said. “I have confidence in myself because I put in the work.”
The importance of this performance can, frankly, be overstated.
Pretty easily, in fact.
At this exact moment just one year ago, we all believed that Quentin Grimes was going to be the difference-maker for Kansas. He scored 21 points and hit six threes as the Jayhawks beat these very same Michigan State Spartans in the first game of the Champions Classic. He was an afterthought within the hour – who can forget what Duke did to Kentucky that season – and eventually ended up transferring out of Kansas after declaring for the draft and realizing that he wasn’t going to be drafted where he wanted to be drafted.
Small sample sizes can be fun, can’t they?
So as always, take this with this biggest grain of salt.
But if Maxey can end up being something close to the guy that we all saw in the World’s Most Famous Arena on Tuesday night, it is unquestionably a difference-maker for the Wildcats. The knock on this group was that there was no clear answer about who is the go-to guy, who is going to be asked to have the ball in their hands, who is going to be capable of making plays at the end of a clock.
Well, now it seems that we have an answer.
It’s Tyrese Maxey.
“I didn’t start him because I told him I wanted [him] to come in firing,” Calipari said. “I want you to watch what’s happening, and you get in there, and you let it go.”
“What I saw today is what I saw in high school,” Calipari added. “I [had] not seen it to this point. I’m in practice, where’s the sniper that I recruited?
“But the two days prior to this, all I talked about was you be that sniper. Play! We need you to get baskets for us.”
On Tuesday he did.