John Clay: Spartans' savvy trumps Cats' talent

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 12, 2013 

CHICAGO — For all those missed free throws (16) and the turnovers (17) and the first-half pouting (rampant) and the failures to get back on defense (excessive), it was nearly a Windy City miracle that Kentucky was even in this tremendous November college basketball game at the United Center.

"I truly don't know how it was — whatever it was," said John Calipari, the Kentucky coach.

There was 4:48 remaining in the first game of the Champions Classic and matters were all knotted up at 66-66 and Calipari's young Cats, riding on the broad back of Julius Randle, owned all the momentum.

Thing was, Michigan State still owned the experience. Sparty's cooler head prevailed.

Keith Appling, a senior, buried a three-pointer from the deep right corner. Tom Izzo's savvy team came up with an immediate steal in the backcourt.

Sophomore star Garry Harris scored on a burst to the basket and just like that — lightning strikes — Michigan State had scored five points in eight seconds.

And that was pretty much it; in this impossibly early showdown of No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 2 Michigan State, the Spartans prevailed 78-74.

Randle was amazing, especially in the second half. The 6-foot-9 Kentucky freshman finished with 27 points and 13 rebounds, much of it on muscle. He scored 23 of those points in the second half.

Like his team, Randle was far from perfect, however. He turned the ball over eight times and missed six of 15 free throws.

And to be honest, on some of the free throws late in the game, Randle looked exhausted.

He even cramped up in the packed post-game news conference room and Calipari told him to leave before he had fielded a question.

State's Harris was the Michigan man of the first half. He scored 15 of his 20 points in the first 20 minutes. James Young did a good job on Harris in the second half.

"But he gave up 15 points in the first half," Calipari countered.

For most of the game, State put the young Cats through some punishment to make them earn their top standing. Michigan State led 10-0 before Kentucky seemed to figure out the game had started.

"We had guys jogging," Calipari said. "They had guys sprinting."

"I guess we just didn't get back," said Alex Poythress, who scored seven points and grabbed 12 rebounds. "That's something we need to work on."

They did come back — State led 59-46 with 11:31 left — only to be undercut by their early errors.

The Cats made just 20 of 36 free throws, just 14 of 26 in the second half.

They ended up with 17 turnovers, compared to Michigan State's seven.

"Instead of making that one extra pass, we held the ball," Calipari said. "Julius had eight turnovers because we held the ball. You miss 16 free throws, you don't deserve to win."

Kentucky dominated the boards, outrebounding Michigan State 44-32. And yet the Cats couldn't come up with the biggest one of the night. Branden Dawson tipped in an MSU missed jumper with five seconds remaining for the game's final points.

"I remember North Carolina," Calipari said, "Anthony Davis blocked that jumper."

For such a young team that didn't play well enough to think it should be in the game, it had a chance to win.

"They're going to get a lot better," Izzo said. "We're going to get a lot better."

"We had guys crying in there," said Calipari of the losing locker room, "which is a good thing."

The fact that the undefeated season talk can now be officially put to bed is a good thing, too.

"We'll be fine," Calipari said.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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