Matt Charboneau of The News talks about No. 1 Michigan State's loss to No. 2 Kentucky in the Champions Classic. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
New York — Michigan State’s time as the top team in the nation didn’t last long.
The new rankings won’t come out until Monday, but the Spartans will almost certainly give up the No. 1 spot after losing for the fourth straight time in the Champions Classic as No. 2 Kentucky got 26 points from freshman Tyrese Maxey to earn the 69-62 victory at Madison Square Garden.
“The things we can build on are we didn’t quit,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “We came back and played hard after the debacle in the first half after the first 10 minutes. Between the free-throw line and the turnovers for touchdowns, we just made some crazy plays.”
The crazy plays included some ugly numbers on the stat sheet as the Spartans (0-1) committed 16 turnovers, shot just 5-for-26 from 3-point range and allowed the Wildcats to attempt 32 free throws to just 18 of their own.
In the end, Michigan State ended up in a position that has become all too familiar the past few years — explaining away an early loss in a marquee game and how it won’t derail the season.
“It’s gonna be a long plane ride home,” senior Cassius Winston said. “It’s a big game, probably the biggest a lot of these guys have played, but this is nothing compared to the end of the season and winning those games. That’s a way better feeling even though we wanted to get this one.
“People have to get a lot better and that’s the beauty of having a season and not just one game.”
This one game was a rough one for Michigan State as Winston was the only player to reach double figures, scoring 21 points. However, Winston was just 1-for-7 from 3-point range as early foul trouble had the Spartans going deep into the bench as all five starters had two fouls by the time the first half was over.
“It’s extremely difficult,” said junior Xavier Tillman, who had seven points and nine rebounds. “We were relying on guys who haven’t had a lot of minutes in these types of games and that’s difficult.”
Kentucky (1-0) did its best to take advantage, going 25-for-32 from the free-throw line to offset an equally shaky night from the field that included 6-for-18 from 3-point range. The last of the six was the biggest as freshman Tyrese Maxey nailed a deep contested triple with a minute to play that put the Wildcats up by five, a lead the Spartans couldn’t overcome.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo talks about the Spartans loss to Kentucky in the Champions Classic on Tuesday night in New York. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Maxey, who Michigan State recruited, scored 26, while Ashton Hagans scored 11 and Immanuel Quickley added 10 points for the Wildcats.
“I didn’t start him because I told him, ‘I want you to come in firing,’” Kentucky coach John Calipari said of his decision to bring Maxey off the bench. “And I said, ‘I want you to watch what’s happening and then you get in there and you let it go.’ Early on, he wasn’t. Then he got into it and he started putting it in ball screens and doing different things that I’ve seen him do.
“What I saw today is what I saw in high school. I had not seen it to this point.”
Kentucky took control late in the first half, closing with an 11-2 run as Michigan State failed to score a basket for the final 6:17. The Wildcats did most of their first-half damage at the free-throw line, going 16-for-20 as Michigan State was called for 15 fouls.
The frequent whistles left the Spartans going deep into their bench as six players were called for at least two fouls, including the entire starting lineup. Aaron Henry played only 2:39 and Michigan State was forced 12 players, including walk-on Jack Hoiberg late in the half to keep Winston from getting a third foul in the final seconds of the half.
Michigan State opened the second half with an 8-2 run to jump back in the game even as the fouls continued to mount with Rocket Watts, Xavier Tillman and Thomas Kithier each picking up their third fouls in the first seven minutes. The Spartans were able to overcome it to a point, getting within 45-41 before Winston missed a three then fouled Quickley on a 3-pointer to spark a nine-point surge for Kentucky that pushed the Wildcats’ lead to 54-41 with just less than 10 minutes to play.
Michigan State's Cassius Winston and Rocket Watts talk about the loss to Kentucky in the Champions Classic on Tuesday night in New York. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
The Spartans responded by scoring the next seven, though, to pull within 54-48 with 8:20 to play and eventually pulled within 56-53 with six minutes to play. But Kentucky took advantage of two straight turnovers to extend the lead to 60-53 before a Henry triple with just more than four minutes to play.
Michigan State didn’t go away, pulling to within 62-60 on a three-point play from Winston with 1:27 to play before Maxey hit the dagger to lock up the victory for the Wildcats.
“We just couldn’t get over that hump,” Winston said. “It was that way the whole game. We’d cut it down to 2, cut it down to 4, something like that and we couldn’t make that one shot or that one play.”
Added Tillman: “Taking care of ball was huge, too. We had a couple of opportunities where we had the momentum, you could har it in the crowd and feel it in the gym. Then we’d make a play and tip it out of bounds or get a turnover and it was like, ‘Man, we’re right there.’”
Michigan State now heads home to face Binghamton on Sunday before the next big test with a trip to No. 12 Seton Hall on Nov. 14.