CHICAGO — Experience trumps talent.
At least at this point in the year.
Branden Dawson tipped in a miss with less than six seconds left, and No. 2 Michigan State hung on for a 78-74 victory over top-ranked Kentucky and its latest cast of young phenoms in the first game of the Champions Classic on Tuesday night. As James Young missed a 3-pointer, the Michigan State fans — including the Spartan in Chief, Magic Johnson, erupted. Gary Harris held up his index finger, indicating the No. 1 ranking the Spartans (2-0) are sure to have next week.
But this might not be the last these two teams see of each other. With four of the top five teams in the one-day tournament — Duke and Kansas played in the nightcap — it’s no stretch to imagine this as a sneak peek at the Final Four.
The Spartans’ Keith Appling came within two rebounds and two assists of a triple-double, finishing with 22 points, and eight rebounds and assists. Harris had 20 points and Adreian Payne had 15 points and four rebounds.
Julius Randle led the Wildcats (2-1) with 27 points — all but four in the second half — and 13 rebounds. Andrew Harrison had 11. But the Wildcats were hurt by early turnovers and they were just 20 of 36 from the free throw line.
This was the earliest 1 vs. 2 match-up, and first since Feb. 23, 2008, when Tennessee beat top-ranked Memphis. The Tigers coach then? None other than John Calipari.
This game had even more hype, mostly because of the Kiddie Cats. Much has been made of the youngsters, with good reason. The last time Calipari had a roster this star-studded, the Wildcats won a national title.
And this group might be even more impressive.
Six were McDonald’s All-Americans, and all are considered lottery picks in next summer’s NBA draft, with Randle a possibility for the overall No. 1. The youngsters did nothing to lessen the hype in their first two games, with Randle averaging 22.5 points and 15 rebounds, and the Harrison twins averaging in double figures. No wonder the game brought out scouts from almost every NBA team and celebrities including Nazr Mohammed and Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
But the Spartans aren’t exactly slouches, returning six of their top seven scorers.
Just as important, big-time games like this are nothing new to them, with coach Tom Izzo routinely scheduling the likes of Connecticut, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas before Jan. 1.
The experience showed early, as the Spartans harassed Kentucky relentlessly on both ends of the court. But Kentucky has too much talent to stay down for long.
After trailing by 13 with 11:32 to play, the Wildcats came roaring back behind Randle, who left little doubt why coaches throughout the NBA covet him. He scored nine points in Kentucky’s 13-1 run, including a “How’d he do that?” off-balance jumper from behind a sea of green jerseys. Andrew Harrison followed with a layup to cut Michigan State’s lead to 60-59 with 8:05 to play.
Andrew Harrison and Randle each made a pair of free throws, tying the game at 66 with 4:48 left. But Appling drilled a 3, and Harris stripped Randle at the other end and took it in for a layup that put Michigan State back in front, 71-66.
Randle wasn’t done just yet. After Andrew Harrison’s free throws Kentucky within 76-72 with 1:33 to play, the Wildcats pounced on an Appling turnover and Randle scored on a jumper. But Dawson tipped in a miss by Denzel Valentine at the other end to seal the win.