Nick Richards returned. The memory of last season’s opening-night loss to Duke faded further into irrelevance.
But freshman Tyrese Maxey’s coming out party was the story line of Kentucky’s 69-62 victory over No. 1 Michigan State on Tuesday in the Champions Classic in Madison Square Garden.
Maxey, who came off the bench, led UK with 26 points. That broke the opening-game record for a UK player in John Calipari’s 11 seasons as coach. Terrence Jones scored 25 against East Tennessee State to begin the 2010-11 season.
“I feel I played OK,” Maxey said. “I feel like I played to win.”
None of Maxey’s points were bigger than a three-pointer with 59.9 seconds left. A one-time 13-point UK lead was down to 62-60.
“I shot it a thousand times in high school,” Maxey said of the clutch basket. “I shot it a thousand times this summer. I have confidence in myself because I put in the work.”
In pointing out that a shot clock nearing zero forced Maxey to take the shot, Michigan State Tom Izzo said, “If it was a little earlier, Cal would have killed him.”
Joking aside, Izzo said of Maxey, “He’s a big-time player. There’s no question.”
Maxey, who turned 19 on Monday, answered Calipari’s call to take the initiative on offense. The UK coach said that idea contributed to the decision to bring Maxey off the bench.
“I didn’t start him because I told him, ‘I wanted you to come in firing,’” Calipari said. “… What I saw today is what I saw in high school. I have not seen it to this point. … Two days prior to this, all I talked about was, ‘You be that sniper.’”
Richards, who had not played since spraining an ankle in UK’s first exhibition game, contributed seven points and four rebounds. Calipari said he did not anticipate Richards playing seconds short of 25 minutes. Richards said his only team workouts since the sprain were one walk-through and one practice.
“I felt a little shaky at the beginning,” he said. “But after going up and down, getting into the rhythm of the game, I started feeling a little better.”
Richards’ health is considered key for Kentucky this season.
“He’s going to have to have a breakout season this year for Kentucky,” ESPN analyst LaPhonso Ellis said of Richards.
Before the game, another ESPN analyst, Seth Greenberg, referenced Richards’ wavering confidence.
“The big thing with Nick is when things go south, he has self-doubt,” Greenberg said. “When you take the next step (in development), you don’t have that self-doubt. You get to the next play and you know the next play will be the right play.”
Michigan State, which was No. 1 in The Associated Press preseason poll for the first time in program history, played shorthanded. Senior guard Joshua Langford is out until at least January.
The first half saw the teams combine for more turnovers and more fouls than baskets. The count was 18 turnovers (eight by UK) and 26 fouls (14 by Michigan State). Each team had eight baskets on a combined 30.8% shooting accuracy.
But one set of numbers at halftime looked good for Kentucky: UK led 34-24.
Kentucky trailed for only 36 seconds in the half and took the lead for good on an EJ Montgomery layup with 18:23 remaining.
Cassius Winston kept Michigan State in the game. He accounted for nine straight Spartans points to tie the score at 18-18.
Then Maxey had a flurry of his own. His three-pointer and two free throws capped a personal run of seven straight points that gave Kentucky a 23-18 lead.
Kentucky outscored Michigan State 7-1 in the half’s final 3:10 to set the halftime score. Immanuel Quickley got the fast finish started with a pull-up three-pointer as the shot clock ticked to its final five seconds.
Four free throws by Maxey set the halftime score.
Kentucky’s defensive effort made Michigan State’s offense labor much of the half. The Spartans had one basket in more than five minutes early, and didn’t reach double-digit points until Winston made two free throws with 11:06 left.
As the second half began, Michigan State took the initiative. A fast-break layup set up by an Ashton Hagans turnover reduced the lead to 34-28 and prompted a timeout with 18:08 left.
The fear of Hagans getting in early foul trouble guarding Winston did not materialize. Hagans’ first foul came with 17:18 to go.
Maxey and Hagans helped Kentucky blunt a Michigan State rally that reduced the lead to 39-36. Maxey hit a three-pointer. Then after a Michigan State turnover, Hagans fed a fast-break pass that a high-rising Richards dunked to put UK ahead 44-36.
A three-pointer by Kahlil Whitney put UK ahead 51-41. Then Nate Sestina hit a three-pointer as a trailer. That gave Kentucky its largest lead, 54-41, and prompted a Michigan State timeout.
The Spartans reduced UK’s lead to 54-48. But then Winston picked up his fourth foul with 7:57 left.
Eastern Kentucky at No. 2 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m. Friday
TV: SEC Network