Michigan State guard Denzel Valentine (45) scores over Kentucky forward Alex Poythress (22) during the first half at the United Center in Chicago on Tuesday. (Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports)
CHICAGO — Seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne led Michigan State to a big lead, and the No. 2 Spartans held off a one-man gang in Kentucky freshman Julius Randle to knock off the No. 1 Wildcats 78-74 Tuesday at the United Center.
Appling scored 22 points and added eight assists, seven rebounds and four steals. Payne had 15 points while battling Randle for position most of the night.
With Michigan State up 76-74 coming out of a timeout, Spartans guard Denzel Valentine missed an off-balance floater off the back iron with 4.4 seconds to go, but freshman guard Branden Dawson tipped in the miss.
Randle had 27 points on 9-of-14 shooting with 13 rebounds for Kentucky (2-1).
The only answer the Spartans had for Randle was to foul the 6-foot-9, 245-pounder, who drifted about the perimeter for much of the first half but planted himself on the block in the second half and had his way with Michigan State’s post defenders.
Michigan State (2-0) was last No. 1 during the 2000-01 season, but it likely will assume the top spot in the national polls next week.
Kentucky cut the lead to six on Randle’s three-point play with 9:41 to play, and tied the game at 66 with 4:46 to go.
The Spartans answered with a 5-0 run — Appling drilled a 3 from the corner and guard Gary Harris scooped up the inbounds pass fumbled by Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison for an easy bucket to get the lead to 71-66.
The Wildcats rushed the ball right back to Randle on the right-hand block. Randle drew a foul and made two more free throws — he was for 9-for-15 in the game — to keep it a one-possession deficit but picked up his fourth foul at the other end.
The Wildcats went right to Randle to chip away at Michigan State’s 44-32 halftime lead. Randle put three soft left-handed floaters off the glass to score the first six point in the second half, but Valentine picked Randle’s pocket and hit Appling on the run-out for an easy bucket at the other end to keep the Spartans’ cushion comfortable, 50-40, prompting Wildcats coach John Calipari to use a timeout 3:35 into the second half.
Michigan State never trailed in the game.
In the first half, nine Kentucky turnovers led to 11 fast-break points for Michigan State. The Spartans led by 44-32 at halftime, paced by Harris with 15 points and Payne with 12.
Payne scored 10 points in succession — finishing four straight Michigan State possessions — to push the lead to 36-21 with 3:24 to play in the first half. He caught fire as Kentucky labored to find its rhythm in a half-court game against the Spartans’ constricting man-to-man pressure.
Young made three 3-pointers and scored 15 points in the first half for Kentucky, but open shots were hard to find, and the Wildcats missed seven of 11 attempts from the 3-point range, including their first four.
The Spartans led 10-0 before the first media timeout. Dawson sparked the early surge with three steals and a rousing dunk off a lob pass from guard Valentine. Kentucky missed three 3-point tries and had five turnovers at the first official stoppage at the 15:54 mark and didn’t score until Young darted behind a Randle screen and hit a 3 from the wing 4:50 into the game.
Randle shot 1-for-5 and had four points in the first half.
NOTES: At least 75 NBA scouting credentials were issued for Tuesday’s doubleheader. Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge were among the talent evaluators in attendance. … In the history of the poll, the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the Associated Press preseason rankings met 39 games. The last regular-season game featuring No. 1 and No. 2 in the AP poll was in 2007, when No. 2 Tennessee beat John Calipari’s top-ranked Memphis team. Calipari now coaches Kentucky. … Michigan State’s G Gary Harris, C Adreian Payne and G Russell Byrd were recruited heavily by Calipari, who famously arrived at Payne’s high school in Ohio via helicopter to observe a workout. … Harris was named the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year in October. … Tuesday was the 99th time under Calipari the Wildcats started at least four freshmen.