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November 13, 2012ATLANTA - The kids aren't all wrong.
John Calipari's newest crop of fresh-faced Wildcats did some good things Tuesday at the Georgia Dome. They fought hard when faced with a deficit. They figured out a few things offensively. They got a breakout performance from Alex Poythress.
It wasn't enough for No. 3 Kentucky, which came lost 75-68 to No. 9 Duke Tuesday night in the Champions Classic. But the promise was there.
"This is all new to this team," Calipari said. "We're trying to figure out how we're playing. We don't play hard enough yet. We don't compete on every possession yet. We don't go after every rebound yet. We don't know how to finish off games yet. We haven't really figured out totally how we're going to play. It's just going to take time."
And against the Blue Devils, the Wildcats ran out of time.
Duke (2-0) appeared to take control of the game midway through the second half, taking a 58-44 lead on a Rasheed Sulaimon three-pointer with 9:24 to play. It looked like the Blue Devils - more solid, more seasoned - had the game in hand.
But not quite.
There was some fight left in Kentucky (1-1), which battled to within three points twice in the final minutes, the last time on a Poythress putback with 1:38 to play. That was part of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance that featured four highlight-reel dunks.
But Duke, with three seniors in its starting lineup, proved too savvy down the stretch. Too good. Senior Seth Curry, who scored 23 points, gave the Blue Devils a 68-63 lead with 1:09 to play, driving into the paint, faking UK's Nerlens Noel into the air and finishing with a slick move around the bucket. He iced the game with 30.3 second to play, cashing in a pair of free throws.
"Seth was terrific," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I think that he was the difference-maker in the game. So the fact that he's a fifth-year senior has to help."
Kentucky lacks playmakers in its upper classes. That's by design. Calipari has built another team around highly-touted freshmen, and by now he knows the drill. The promise is there, but so there are some cons to all these future pros.
"What they don't understand is how hard they have to play," Calipari said. "Every possession. How you have to sustain it, and how a minute and a half will cost you a game. They don't know it yet. It's never been that important."
But Kentucky is learning. It squandered a 15-point second-half lead against Maryland, then rallied to win last Friday. And though it lost on Tuesday, UK showed its mettle in fighting back.
It also saw signs of things to come from Poythress, and from Nerlens Noel (16 points, eight rebounds, three blocks, four steals) and Archie Goodwin (16 points, six rebounds, four assists).
Still, the Cats had lapses, including during a 15-5 Duke run that opened up that 14-point second-half lead.
"I think we learned a lot about ourselves tonight," Noel said. "Just going up against a team like Duke, you've got to bring it every possession. Tonight was a learning process. I think we're just going to get back to work and really figure everything out."
And there's plenty to figure out. There were stretches in which UK - playing without starting point guard Ryan Harrow, who stayed home with an illness - was virtually without a halfcourt offense.
Duke took Kyle Wiltjer out of the game, holding him to five points on five shot attempts. The Blue Devils' Mason Plumlee had his way inside, scoring 18 points on 7-for-8 shooting. Duke scored 18 points off UK turnovers and held the Cats to nine fast-break points. Kentucky had only four points off the bench.
Duke had 12 bench points, committed only eight turnovers and shot 51.9 percent in the second half.
"I think we were composed," Curry said. "We've been in games like that, in situations like that before. I don't think we were blinded by the light."
Kentucky's kids, meanwhile, weren't all wrong. But they have a long way to go to get right.
"We're a November team right now, and we have to get better," Calipari said. "If this is what we look like in December and January, we're not going to be the team everybody thinks. We got to figure out exactly how we're going to play, or have an idea, and then we got to get after it."