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November 12, 2013

Cats learn lessons in falling short vs. Spartans

CHICAGO -- Win or learn, John Calipari had said.

He'd hoped for the former and wanted at least the latter when No. 1 Kentucky played No. 2 Michigan State in Tuesday's Champions Classic at the United Center.

He didn't get the win. The Spartans held off a furious Wildcat rally to win 78-74. But his team got an education from Michigan State, and Calipari could see the lessons starting to set in.

"You had kids crying in (the locker room), and I want it to hurt like that," Calipari said. "And I think this -- I knew this would get their attention in the first half. But the biggest thing is: If you don't do this together, you will not win; you will never be a special team. So you've got to truly do this together, and that's both on defense and offense."

Michigan State (2-0) was Team Togetherness in the first half. The Spartans controlled the first half, scoring the game's first 10 points and forcing Calipari to call two timeouts before his team made a basket.

Tom Izzo's team led 44-32 at halftime and never trailed in knocking off No. 1.

But in the second half, the Cats made the Spartans earn it.

Riding freshman Julius Randle, who scored 23 of his 27 points after halftime, Kentucky rallied to tie the game at 66-66 with 4:48 to play before five quick Michigan State points - a three-pointer from Keith Appling and a layup from Gary Harris off a UK turnover -- turned the tide back in the Spartans' favor.

"They played," Calipari said. "They had been in these moments before, and my team had not."

And at times, Kentucky (2-1) didn't acquit itself well in its first showcase game.

The Wildcats trailed by as many as 15 points, missed 16 free throws, committed 17 turnovers and allowed 21 fast-break points. Many of those were the result of a lack of effort in transition defense -- " Guys are jogging," Calipari said; "They were sprinting" -- and ultimately did in UK.

But UK also outscored Michigan State 42-34 after halftime, outrebounded the Spartans 44-32 and battled back from the verge of a blowout. Even with their miscues, the Cats trailed by only two points before a Branden Dawson tip-in sealed it for the Spartans with less than six seconds to play.

"We learned a lot about our players," said sophomore forward Alex Poythress, who had seven points and 12 rebounds. "We learned who's fighting and who can keep it going. We learned, when the going gets rough, who just keeps on fighting."

Poythress said "everybody on the team" showed fight down the stretch.

Nobody showed more than Randle, who established himself as a go-to presence in the teeth of a tight game. But the night was a mixed bag for other Kentucky freshmen.

Guards Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison combined for 14 points -- 11 from Andrew -- to go with two rebounds, five assists and six turnovers. James Young scored 19 points but was 3 for 11 from three-point range, missed three of his five free throws and struggled in transition defense. Center Dakari Johnson got five rebounds in 14 minutes but missed all three free-throw attempts.

And early, Kentucky's youngsters looked utterly out of place.

"They've never been an environment like this, one," Calipari said. "And two, they get into themselves a little bit; it's natural. So now everybody's trying to do your own thing and it's discombobulated. And that's what I expected."

In the second half, the Cats looked settled. By then the damage was done.

Calipari didn't get his win. But he got his teaching tools.

"This team he's got will get better," Izzo said. "But they've got some growing to do, too. They're going to to have to get better in some areas. Now Randle, he doesn't have to get any better. He can stay like he is. But those other guys, they got to get better and they will get better."

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