Tyrese Maxey, Kentucky's latest freshman star, scored 26 points and the second-ranked Wildcats opened the season with a 69-62 victory against No. 1 Michigan State on Tuesday night in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden.
The Nos. 1 and 2 teams opened their seasons against each other for the first time since 1975 and the Wildcats made their case to be top-ranked next week.
Michigan State entered the season as the No. 1 team in the country for the first time, but aside from All-American Cassius Winston, the Spartans struggled to score. Winston had 21 points.
This Kentucky team is built around returning contributors instead of one-and-done freshmen, but Maxey asserted himself in his first game.
After Winston cut the lead to three on a three-point play with 1:27 left, Maxey hit a 3 from way behind the line to make it 65-60 with 59 seconds left.
The Champions Classic brought the top-four teams in the nation to the same building for the first time in college basketball. No. 4 Duke beat No. 3 Kansas 68-66 in the opener of the doubleheader. The nightcap marked the fourth No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in college basketball in the last 10 years, and the third involving Michigan State in the Champions Classic.
The passionate fanbases sold out the Garden. Kentucky supporters and Michigan State traded "Go Big Blue!" and "Go Green! Go White!" chants when things got close. It was a marquee, event but a choppy game. Neither team shot over 40% from the field and they combined to shoot 50 free throws.
The Spartans couldn't find the range from 3, going 5 for 26 and certainly looked like they could have used the scoring of senior guard Joshua Langford, who is expected to be out until January with a right foot injury.
Michigan State had whittled a 10-point halftime deficit down to four when Kentucky went on a 9-0 run behind 3s from Kahlil Whiney and Nate Sestina, pushing the lead to 54-41 with 9:57 left in the second half.
Kentucky's veteran backcourt of Ashton Hagans (11 points) and Immanuel Quickley (10 points), both sophomores, but were outshined by Maxey. The 6-foot-3 guard from Texas attacked the basket and made clutch 3s.
Kentucky: Wildcats coach John Calipari improved to 6-4 against No. 1 teams, including 3-2 at Kentucky.
Michigan State: The Wildcats looked more the part of the No. 1 team in the country in the first half, building 34-24 lead and disrupting the Spartans with their length and depth. It was all Winston for Michigan State. The senior had 12 points, and the rest of the starting lineup managed just two points.
Kentucky: The Wildcats go home to face Eastern Kentucky on Friday.