NEW YORK – On a night when senior guard Cassius Winston didn’t have it; on a night where its permanent fill-in at the two went scoreless; on a night where junior forward Xavier Tillman failed to establish position in the post; on a night when fouls and stagnant gameplay halted its affinity for points in transition …
Michigan State was a stop-and-score away from tying the game.
Sophomore forward Aaron Henry seemed locked in as can be on Kentucky freshman guard Tyrese Maxey, who delivered the dagger as the shot clock expired.
His clutch three-pointer would put him at 26 for the night and put Kentucky in front 65-60 with a minute remaining.
The Wildcats rode Maxey to a 69-62 victory at the World's Most Famous Arena Tuesday night.
"Blame it on everybody else, blame it on the refs, but at the end of the day they scored more points than we did," Henry said postgame. "We just weren't ready to play I guess."
The Spartans got off to a promising start, as freshman guard Rocket Watts assisted Winston on a backdoor cut for an easy finish. But the scattered green and white spectators had little to cheer about from that point on.
Winston negated the positive start by fouling Kentucky guard Immanuel Quickley on a three-pointer, allowing the sophomore to tack on three easy points.
This would be the tale of contest.
The Spartans led for 39 seconds, committing 14 fouls to Kentucky’s 12 in the first half. The marquee matchup of the annual Champions Classic mirrored the opening one as it was stagnated by whistles.
Henry picked up two quick fouls and exited the half with 17:21 to play. His presence was missed, especially on the defensive end, as Michigan State struggled to defend Kentucky’s quick-twitch wings without fouling.
"I feel like when I came back in the second half, I kind of did what I was supposed to do," Henry said. "It's gotta be a learning experience. I gotta be a two-half player ... I feel like if I had played both halves more minutes, that would've been a totally different game."
Sophomore forward Gabe Brown made an immediate impact upon recording his first minutes of the regular season as he made his first attempt from three to pull MSU within 4 at 11-7.
Brown would struggle from the field overall, though, just as his teammates did, to finish three of 10 from the field.
Winston’s next points came at the free-throw line at 10:48 in the first after he, too, struggled from the field. Winston managed to finish the half with 12 points despite shooting four of 13 from the floor.
Winston lobbed the ball to sophomore forward Marcus Bingham Jr. on the fast break for an easy slam a few possessions later, tying the score at 16.
Just as it seemed like the tides were turning in the Spartans’ favor, they would again fail to regain the lead.
This would remain the other prevailing theme of the night.
"We just couldn't get over that hump. It was that way the whole game," Winston said. "We cut it down to two, cut it down to four, cut it down to five or something like that. We just couldn't get over that, make that one shot or that one play."
Bingham, MSU’s secret-weapon-in-process, showed that he is still just that — in process.
His grabbing rebounds and stretching the floor were overshadowed by poor shooting beyond five feet — three of six from field and zero for one from three — and unforced turnovers in game-defining stretches.
Bingham also showed he still has a lot of growing up to do, physically and mentally. After missing his first attempt of two from the line, the 6 foot, 11 inch forward ran back to the defensive end, showing obvious frustration. Winston had to corral and remind him that he still had another free throw remaining.
Henry would make his presence known in the second half, finishing four of seven from the field en route to nine points and two timely assists, including an assist on sophomore forward Thomas Kithier and-one to pull the Spartans within 6.
But Watts would not recover from his first half woes, following his scoreless first half with another and committing two costly turnovers, including one that led to a layup in transition from Kentucky sophomore guard Ashton Hagans just as the Spartans looked to climb back into the contest.
Winston finished a miraculous and-one in the lane with 1:27 remaining and made the free throw to pull the Spartans within two, but his shooting one for seven from three proved costly down the stretch.
Maxey was MSU’s kryptonite, scoring at seemingly every crucial moment along with his late-game hero ball.
MSU would sprinkle in timely threes to keep the second half interesting, but a 19.2 three-point percentage, continued unforced turnovers by Watts and Bingham, Winston’s foul trouble, and Kentucky’s clutch play down the stretch kept the game further from reach than the final score indicated.
"We didn't quit. We came back and played hard after a debacle after the first 10 minutes of the game," MSU Head Coach Tom Izzo said. "Between the free throw line, the turnovers for touchdowns, we just made some crazy plays."
Michigan State returns home to take on Binghamton Sunday, Nov. 10 at 7 p.m.
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