CHICAGO | School was officially in session for Kentucky’s celebrated freshman class Tuesday night.
Lew Wallace graduate Branden Dawson capped a solid night by converting a key tip-in with 4.4 seconds left to help lead No. 2 Michigan State to a 78-74 victory over the No. 1 Wildcats in the opening game of the Champions Classic at the United Center.
Dawson finished with eight points, nine rebounds and four steals.
“Denzel (Valentine) made a good play and drew two defenders,” Dawson said. “I was in the right place at the right time and finished the play.”
The junior forward helped Michigan State jump out to a 10-0 lead with a pair of steals and a highlight dunk that had the United Center rocking. Dawson was active on both sides of the court and kept Kentucky’s Julius Randle in check in the first half, holding the freshman to four points and forcing four turnovers.
“He’s a physical player with a NBA-ready body,” Dawson said. “Coach (Tom Izzo) just told me that I had to be ready to battle him.”
Randle exploded in the second half and finished with a game-high 27 points and 13 rebounds as the Wildcats battled back from a 15-point deficit to tie the game at 66-66. Just as Kentucky’s Big Blue Nation was starting to get loud, the Spartans responded with five points in nine seconds.
Keith Appling led the Spartans (2-0) with 22 points and eight assists, while Gary Harris added 20 points.
Despite the victory, and the likely No. 1 ranking that will come with it, Dawson wasn’t feeling overconfident.
“It’s a great feeling to win this game, but we haven’t won anything yet,” Dawson said. “Now a lot more teams will be coming at us, and we still have plenty that we can work on from this.”
The game marked the first meeting between top-ranked teams in the Associated Press poll since 2008. Tuesday’s contest was the earliest the top two teams have ever played in the regular season.
In the nightcap, Andrew Wiggins scored 16 of his 22 points in the second half to lead No. 5 Kansas past No. 4 Duke 94-83. Jabari Parker led Duke with 27 points, nine rebounds and two steals.