CHICAGO — As the buzzer sounded and his Michigan State teammates raced onto the court to celebrate, Gary Harris held his index finger aloft.
No doubt about who's No. 1.
For now, at least.
Branden Dawson tipped in a miss with less than six seconds left, and the No. 2 Spartans hung on for a 78-74 victory over top-ranked Kentucky and its latest cast of phenoms in the first game of the Champions Classic on Tuesday night.
"We want to be No. 1 at the end of the season," Keith Appling said. "Not the beginning."
Keep playing like this and the Spartans (2-0) are sure to be in the conversation come the end of March.
Kentucky, too. After trailing by as much as 13 in the second half, looking like the freshmen most of them are, the Wildcats (2-1) showed why there's so much hype surrounding them. Julius Randle almost beat the Spartans single-handedly, scoring 23 of his 27 in the second half and making a jumper with 42 seconds left that cut the deficit to 76-74.
But Dawson tipped in Denzel Valentine's miss, and James Young missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
"You got guys crying in there, which is a good thing," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "I want it to hurt like that. I knew this would get their attention. The biggest thing is if you don't do this together, you won't win. You'll never be a special team."
This was the earliest 1 vs. 2 matchup and first since Feb. 23, 2008, when Tennessee beat top-ranked Memphis. The Tigers coach then? None other than Calipari.
This game had even more hype, mostly because of the Kiddie Cats. Much has been made of the youngsters, with good reason. The last time Calipari had a roster this star-studded, the Wildcats won a national title.
This group might be even more impressive.
Six were McDonald's All-Americans, and all are considered lottery picks in next summer's NBA draft. The youngsters did nothing to lessen the hype in their first two games, with Randle averaging 22.5 points and 15 rebounds and the Harrison twins averaging in double figures. The game brought out scouts from almost every NBA team.
But the Spartans aren't exactly slouches, returning six of their top seven scorers. Just as important, big-time games like this are nothing new to them, with coach Tom Izzo routinely scheduling the likes of Connecticut, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas before Jan. 1.
"They're really good," Calipari said. "This is the second game out and they go 17 assists to seven turnovers? That's unbelievable. Again, understand we're not the greatest defensive team, but 17 and seven? With these lights and all that's going on around them? They're well coached. They played well."
Smothering the Wildcats defensively and leaving them flat-footed with their surprising speed, the Spartans had a 10-0 lead before Kentucky got its first basket. The Wildcats finished with 17 turnovers and made 20 of 36 free throws.
"They're going to get a lot better. Give them credit," Izzo said. "But I thought we played awfully well for a lot of that game."
NO. 3 L'VILLE 97, HOFSTRA 69: Russ Smith scored 21 of his 30 in the first half, and the host Cardinals (2-0) made 12 3-pointers.
NO. 7 MICH. 93, S.C. STATE 59: Caris LeVert made his first five 3-pointers, and the host Wolverines (2-0) made 15 of 28 3s.
NO. 8 SYRACUSE 89, FORDHAM 74: C.J. Fair scored a career-high 26, and Jerami Grant added 16 points and 10 rebounds for the host Orange (2-0).
NO. 8 OKLA. ST. 93, UTAH VALLEY 40: Phil Forte scored 19 to lead six players in double figures for the host Cowboys (2-0).
NO. 11 OHIO ST. 79, OHIO 69: Aaron Craft scored 17, including eight free throws down the stretch, to help the host Buckeyes (2-0) hold off their neighboring rival.
NO. 14 VCU 59, NO. 24 UVA 56: Treveon Graham scored 22, including a tiebreaking 3-pointer with 1.1 seconds left as the visiting Rams (2-0) rallied past the Cavaliers (1-1) in front of a sellout crowd at John Paul Jones Arena.
NO. 17 MARQUETTE 114, GRAMBLING 71: Chris Otule scored 17 and Steve Taylor added 16 points and 11 rebounds for the host Golden Eagles (2-0), who topped 100 points for the first time since December 2010.
NO. 22 UCLA 91, OAKLAND 60: Jordan Adams scored 22 and Tony Parker added 21 for the host Bruins (2-0), who closed the first half on a 27-9 run and blew it open with an 18-2 run in the second half.
NO. 25 BAYLOR 66, S.C. 64: Brady Heslip scored 18 with five 3-pointers, and the host Bears held on without making a field goal in the final seven minutes and having to wait out a lengthy review after the final buzzer before officials determined there wasn't yet another foul in a game plagued by 55.
SAINT LEO 70, P.R.-MAYAGUEZ 51: Jerrel Harris had 14 points to lead the visiting Lions (4-0) in their fourth game in five days.
TAMPA 78, S'EASTERN 65: Jordan Davis had 13 points and 10 assists for the host Spartans in their season opener.
NO. 19 COLORADO 63, COLO. ST. 59: Arielle Roberson and Jasmine Sborov had 13 points each, and the visiting Buffaloes withstood a rally to win their season opener.