CHICAGO — Kentucky freshman Julius Randle took his time making an entrance into the prime time spotlight on Tuesday night, putting up a first-half line that caused a few murmurs among the blue-blooded faithful at the United Center.
However, by the time the phenom was done at the Champions Classic, his four-point, four-turnover effort from the first half was but a mere memory. Though his top-ranked Kentucky team fell to second-ranked Michigan State 78-74, Randle earned plenty of plaudits for helping lead a near comeback from a 12-point deficit at halftime.
The best compliment paid toward Randle may have come from Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
"What I loved about him was that he gritted his teeth, was ornery and nasty and he wanted to put them on his shoulders," Izzo said after a win that will likely elevate the Spartans to the No. 1 ranking. "For a freshman, that speaks volumes. Nobody else did that. He completely (wanted to win). You could see it in his body language. Tough kid."
Indeed, Randle's performance was what many expected from one of this season's top recruits. The 6-foot-9 Dallas native ended the night with 27 points and 13 rebounds. After going just 1-for-5 in the first half, Randle controlled the paint in the second half and shot 8-for-9 from the field. It was a gritty performance and it took his toll on the young player. After walking into the interview room with Kentucky coach John Calipari and teammate Alex Poythress, he was immediately excused to go visit the trainer.
The reason given? Cramps.
Admittedly, some of Randle's domination in the second half was a result of Spartans big man Adreian Payne falling into early foul trouble. That led to Izzo putting what he called "some bizarre lineups" on the floor and Randle took advantage of the size difference.
But even when Randle was triple teamed, he fought through it. He logged his first official "beast-mode" moment in the national spotlight with just 40 seconds left, muscling past three Michigan State defenders for a basket that cut the lead to two.
Though the Wildcats would eventually fall short, Randle's play in the second half showed that he's the real deal. He is Kentucky's leading scorer through three games and ranks as must-see TV every time he takes the floor this season.
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