CHICAGO — As the buzzer sounded and his Michigan State teammates raced onto the court to celebrate, Gary Harris held his index finger aloft.
No doubt about who’s No. 1.
For now, at least.
Branden Dawson tipped in a miss with less than six seconds left, and the No. 2 Spartans hung on for a 78-74 victory over top-ranked Kentucky and its latest cast of phenoms in the first game of the Champions Classic on Tuesday night.
“We want to be No. 1 at the end of the season,” Keith Appling said. “Not the beginning.”
Keep playing like this and the Spartans (2-0) are sure to be in the conversation come the end of March.
Kentucky, too. After trailing by as much as 13 in the second half, looking like the freshmen most of them are, the Wildcats (2-1) showed why there’s so much hype surrounding them. Julius Randle almost beat the Spartans single-handedly, scoring 23 of his 27 points in the second half and making a jumper with 42 seconds left that cut Michigan State’s lead to 76-74.
But Dawson tipped in a miss by Denzel Valentine, and James Young missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“You got guys crying in there, which is a good thing,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I want it to hurt like that. I knew this would get their attention. The biggest thing is if you don’t do this together, you won’t win. You’ll never be a special team.”
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 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.
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 Izzo routinely scheduling the likes of Connecticut, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas before Jan. 1.
“They’re really good,” Calipari said. “This is the second game out and they go 17 assists to seven turnovers? That’s unbelievable. Again, understand we’re not the greatest defensive team, but 17 and seven? With these lights and all that’s going on around them? They’re well coached. They played well.”
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 for the Spartans.
Kentucky had strolled through its first two games, with Randle and the other freshmen coming up big. But there’s a big difference between those non-conference patsies and Michigan State, and the Spartans let the Wildcats know what they were up against from the opening tip.
Smothering the Wildcats defensively and leaving them flat-footed with their surprising speed on offense, Michigan State had a 10-0 lead before Kentucky got its first bucket. The ‘Cats had seven turnovers before the midway point of the first half, and would finish with 17.
And it was clear that, with four freshmen in the starting lineup and another getting heavy playing time, the Wildcats are still getting used to each other, too. At one point, Andrew Harrison rifled a no-look pass to Willie Cauley-Stein that Cauley-Stein wasn’t expecting, and the ball sailed out of bounds.
They struggled at the line, too, going just 20 of 36.
“They’re going to get a lot better. Give them credit,” Izzo said. “But I thought we played awfully well for a lot of that game.”
Still, the Spartans got in foul trouble midway through the second half, and the slower pace gave the Wildcats time to catch their breath and regroup. It also gave a seething Randle an opportunity to work out his anger.
“What I loved about him, he gritted his teeth, was ornery and nasty and he wanted to put them on his shoulders,” Izzo said. “For a freshman, that speaks volumes. He completely did that. You could see it and hear him. Tough kid.”
Randle scored nine points in a 13-1 run that cut Michigan State’s lead to 60-59 with 8:05 left, including a “How’d he do that?” off-balance jumper from behind a sea of green jerseys. He and Andrew Harrison each made a pair of free throws to tie the game at 66 with 4:48 left.
But Appling drilled a 3, and Harris stripped Randle at the other end. He took it in for a layup that put the Spartans back in front, 71-66, bringing the Michigan State fans — including Spartan in Chief, Magic Johnson — to their feet.
Randle wasn’t done just yet, however. 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’s tip-in sealed the win.
“I keep reiterating: They’re going to get a lot better,” Izzo said. “But I honestly believe so will we.”
No. 3 LOUISVILLE 97, HOFSTRA 69
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Russ Smith scored 21 of his game-high 30 points in the first half and Louisville made 12 3-pointers to set the tone for a rout of Hofstra.
The senior guard shot 12 of 22 from the field including 5 of 12 from beyond the arc. Wayne Blackshear made three straight 3s for nine points to help Louisville break the game open with a 26-2 second-half run. Luke Hancock returned from an Achilles injury to hit a couple from long range as well as the Cardinals finished 12 of 31 from deep.
Louisville (2-0) shot 35 of 68 overall (51.5 percent), a big improvement from its 38-percent effort in a season-opening win over the College of Charleston.
Chris Jones added 20 points with seven assists for Louisville, Montrezl Harrell had 19.
The Cardinals forced 22 turnovers leading to 30 points and dominated the paint 44-16.
No. 7 MICHIGAN 93, SOUTH CAROLINA STATE 59
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Caris LeVert made his first five 3-point attempts, and No. 7 Michigan had a terrific night from beyond the arc, breezing to a victory over South Carolina State.
LeVert finished with 24 points, going 6 of 7 from long distance. Nik Stauskas added 23 points — he was 5 of 6 from 3-point range. Both sophomores set career highs in scoring.
The Wolverines (2-0) were again without star big man Mitch McGary, who has been out with a back problem.
Jordan Smith scored 19 points for South Carolina State (1-2).
Michigan, which scored only 69 points in a season-opening win over UMass-Lowell last week, led 59-23 at halftime Tuesday after going 12 of 19 from 3-point range. The Wolverines finished 15 of 28 from beyond the arc.
No. 8 OKLAHOMA STATE 93, UTAH VALLEY 40
STILLWATER, Okla. — Phil Forte scored 19 points to lead six double-figure scorers and Oklahoma State cruised past Utah Valley.
The Cowboys (2-0) hit 10 of 18 from 3-point range in the first half and 14 of 33 from beyond the arc for the game. Forte and Marcus Smart, who scored 14 points, combined to hit 8 of 17 from 3-point range.
Freshman Stevie Clark was 3 of 4 from 3-point range, finished 16 points and had six assists.
Le’Bryan Nash (11), Brian Williams (10) and Markel Brown (10) also scored in double figures for the Cowboys.
Brown and Kamari Murphy each pulled down six rebounds as Oklahoma State led 50-25 at halftime.
Keawe Enos and Hayes Garrity both had eight points for Utah Valley (2-1), which was 14 of 48 from the field.
No. 9 SYRACUSE 89, FORDHAM 74
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — C.J. Fair scored a career-high 26 points, Jerami Grant added 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Syracuse beat Fordham.
Syracuse, which started the season with a so-so 82-60 win over Cornell on Friday night after trailing by 14 points late in the first half, left little doubt about the outcome of this one. The Orange had the game in hand by halftime, leading by 25 behind 15 points from Fair as the Syracuse defense clamped down from the opening tip.
Grant, who missed Syracuse’s season opener due to a violation of NCAA rules regarding summer-league play, was sharp, hitting 6 of 12 shots and nabbing three steals. Freshman point guard Tyler Ennis finished with 16 points, five assists, no turnovers and four of the Orange’s 15 steals.
Branden Frazier had a career-high 33 points for Fordham and freshman Jon Severe added 19, hitting 4 of 10 from long range.
No. 10 OHIO STATE 79, OHIO 69
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Aaron Craft scored 17 points — including eight free throws down the stretch — to help Ohio State hold off neighboring rival Ohio.
Amir Williams had a career-high 14 points, reserve Sam Thompson had 12 and LaQuinton Ross added 10 for the Buckeyes (2-0).
Ohio State built a 12-point halftime lead and never trailed in a game with little continuity due to the constant whistles calling the new contact rules. Ohio State was 37 of 50 at the line.
Stevie Taylor and Nick Kellogg each had 21 points for Ohio (1-1), down by as many as 17 before cutting the gap to five points with 4 minutes left.
The teams, just 75 miles apart, hadn’t met on the court in 19 years.
No. 20 WISCONSIN 59, No. 11 FLORIDA 53
MADISON, Wis. — Sam Dekker scored 16 points, Traevon Jackson added 13 and Wisconsin overcame a sloppy start to hold off Florida in its home opener.
The Gators turned up their backcourt pressure to narrow a 10-point deficit to 51-48 with 2 minutes left on two free throws by center Patric Young. Another free throw by Young cut it to 56-53 with 41.8 seconds left.
But Jackson hit a floater at the foul line over Jacob Kurtz with about 10 seconds left and Frank Kaminsky blocked a shot on the other to seal the win for Wisconsin (2-0).
Michael Frazier II led Florida (1-1) with 20 points.
Dekker’s 3-pointer with 11:06 left in the first half sparked a 22-10 run for Wisconsin.
No. 14 VCU 59, No. 25 VIRGINIA 56
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Treveon Graham scored 22 points, including a tie-breaking 3-pointer with 1.1 seconds to play, and VCU beat Virginia.
The Rams (2-0) trailed for almost all of the final 10 minutes until Graham’s steal and baseline jumper gave them a 56-55 lead with 1:18 left.
Malcolm Brogdon then hit just the second of two free throws with 9.7 seconds left for the Cavaliers (1-1), tying the game before the Rams called time out and set up the final play.
Rob Brandenburg brought the ball up, went around a screen and fired a pass back to Graham, who shot from the left side of the arc and swished it through for just the sixth 3-pointer of the game.
Joe Harris led Virginia with 18 points.
No. 17 MARQUETTE 114, GRAMBLING STATE 71
MILWAUKEE — Chris Otule scored 17 points and Steve Taylor added 16 points and 11 rebounds to help Marquette roll over Grambling State.
The last time Marquette (2-0) reached the century mark came in a 102-77 victory over Mississippi Valley State on Dec. 21, 2010.
Deonte Burton added 14 points, JuJuan Johnson 12 and Jamil Thomas, Juan Anderson and Jake Thomas each a had 11 for Marquette.
The Golden Eagles took command early and led by as much as 23 in the first half as Otule scored 13 points and Davante Gardner and Burton each added 10 for a 52-35 lead. Then Thomas hit consecutive 3s and added a layup to spark a 12-0 run that opened the second half and sealed the win.
Chandler Thomas scored 26 points and A’Torri Shine added 17 for Grambling State (0-2), which has lost 30 straight games.
No. 23 BAYLOR 66, SOUTH CAROLINA 64
WACO, Texas — Brady Heslip scored 18 points with five 3-pointers and Baylor held on for a victory over South Carolina, without making a field goal in the final 7 minutes and having to wait out a lengthy review after the final buzzer Tuesday before officials determined there wasn’t yet another foul in the game.
South Carolina (1-1) was desperately trying to get a tying basket, and the ball was still being batted around when the buzzer sounded at the same time a referee blew a whistle for an apparent foul. The refs reviewed the video before declaring the game was over.
The Gamecocks didn’t score again after Sindarius Thornwell penetrated around 7-foot-1 Isaiah Austin with 4:20 left to tie the game at 64. Thornwell had 20 points.
The game was plagued by 55 fouls, and Baylor held on while shooting only 54 percent on free throws.
No. 24 UCLA 91, OAKLAND 60
LOS ANGELES — Jordan Adams scored 22 points and Tony Parker added 21 as UCLA beat Oakland.
The Bruins (2-0) pulled away by closing the first half on a 27-9 run to take a 44-24 lead. An 18-2 run in the second half sealed the victory for the Bruins.
UCLA dominated in all aspects of the game, shooting 52.5 percent from the field and outrebounding the Grizzlies 49-28. Oakland shot 30.8 percent from the field.
The Golden Grizzlies (0-2) were coming off a 21-point loss to No. 12 North Carolina, and came to Los Angeles with only 10 players on their roster.
They tried in vain to keep up by launching 3-point shots but they connected on just two of 15 attempts in the first half and were 6 of 25 fror the game.
Travis Bader scored 19 points to lead the Golden Grizzlies, while Tommie McCune added 12.
Norman Powell scored 18 points for the Bruins.