Kentucky’s first game on a big stage this season contained a distinct Big Apple theme. If the latest version of the Cats could make it there, they could make it anywhere.
A 69-48 victory over No. 13 Michigan State started spreading the news: Another freshman-dependent Kentucky team can compete.
Freshmen scored 45 of the points in a game Kentucky led for the final 33-plus minutes.
“They don’t play like ordinary freshmen,” said a relative graybeard, sophomore Isaiah Briscoe. “And I’m comfortable with them. And I wouldn’t trade those guys for anything.”
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Guard Malik Monk led the way with 23 points. He made seven three-pointers, which was one shy of the most by any UK player in a game in John Calipari’s eight seasons as coach. Jamal Murray and Eric Bledsoe made eight in 2015-16 and 2009-10, respectively.
Monk’s sizzling shooting perhaps put to rest another question lingering in the air: Can Kentucky shoot well enough from the perimeter in a season that figures to have many opponents’ defenses sagging into the lane and hoping?
In its first two games, Kentucky made only nine of 34 three-point shots. Monk, who came to UK with a reputation as a streaky shooter, made only three of 12. He more than doubled his makes from beyond the arc against Michigan State, which sagged its defense in the lane.
“I was just preparing real good with Coach Cal (John Calipari) and Coach Kenny Payne,” Monk said. “(They) told me to get lower, and just be more in tune with my shot. And that’s what happened.”
When asked what he meant by being in tune with his shot, Monk said, “Staying low. Stepping into the shot. Not being casual as Coach Cal likes to say.”
Calipari credited “an unbelievable shoot-around” for Monk’s seven-for-11 three-point shooting.
“One of the best shoot-arounds that any of my players has had in the last few years,” Calipari said.
Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo acknowledged how well Monk shot.
“He hit some big threes early unguarded on the break, which they’re very, very good at,” he said. ”Then he got going and goes seven for 11. He was the only guy who hit the three.”
Monk’s teammates missed all 10 of the three-point shots they took.
Briscoe added 21 points for Kentucky, while De’Aaron Fox chipped in 12.
Michigan State, which lost to Arizona 65-63 in its opener, fell to 0-2. The Spartans’ star freshman, Miles Bridges, scored six points and committed nine turnovers.
The victory, which improved No. 2 Kentucky’s record to 3-0, put into action the confident words the freshmen uttered last weekend.
“I think our team is ready to play anybody,” Bam Adebayo said. “We have the heart. We have the guts.”
A Kentucky-Michigan State game carried cache. It was played in the gaudy-named Champions Classic in Madison Square Garden, also known in New York as “the world’s most famous arena.”
Briscoe, who grew up in nearby Newark, N.J., had empathy for his freshman teammates. “It’s tough to play in the Garden your third game of the season,” he said. “They played well.”
Fox had all but shrugged at the prospect of playing in such a game. “I don’t have anything circled on the calendar,” he said last weekend.
Fox and his teammates backed it up.
UK’s freshmen showed they belonged early and often in the first half. Led by Monk and Fox, freshmen scored 14 of the Cats’ first 16 points.
By halftime, with Kentucky leading 34-26, freshmen had scored 24 points.
Monk led the way with 14 first-half points. He hit three three-pointers along the way.
The only non-freshman to score for Kentucky in the first half was Briscoe. He didn’t shoot well from beyond the shadow of the rim, but five layups accounted for 10 points.
Briscoe set the halftime score. He took an inbounds pass at the rim with 2.1 seconds left and laid in a heavily contested shot.
Kentucky matched its largest lead of the first half before the first TV timeout of the second half. Monk’s fifth three-pointer put the Cats ahead 43-31 with 15:53 left.
With the season only five days old, Calipari cautioned against an over-reaction to how well Kentucky’s freshmen handled the setting.
“Same freshmen that played against Canisius and were down three (late in the first half),” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go.
“This shows us what we’re capable of. Now, we have to build on this and convince them of that.”
Duquesne at No. 2 Kentucky
9 p.m. Sunday (ESPN)