For most of the night, there felt like something was missing from a jam-packed Madison Square Garden. The building got loud on a few occasions, but the buzz wasn’t there, not the way it was last year when Duke played MSG, and Zion Williamson or RJ Barrett had the ball.
That hyped freshman wasn’t there — Memphis 7-foot-1 center James Wiseman and North Carolina point guard Cole Anthony were elsewhere — until Tyrese Maxey took the floor, coming off the bench in his college debut. He’s not going to spend a lot of time there moving forward based on this performance.
The 6-foot-3 guard from Texas owned the evening, dazzling the crowd with his quickness, poise and shot-making ability. He was fast, getting to wherever he wanted on the floor, without allowing himself to get sped up. This was his first college basketball game, in an NBA arena in New York City, against the No. 1-ranked team in the country and he treated it like a pick-up game in the park.
Maxey calmly scored a game-high 26 points on 13 shots in 31 minutes. The day after he turned 19, Maxey scored the most points by a Kentucky freshman in his debut under coach John Calipari in a 69-62 victory over Michigan State in the Champions Classic.
“This was an amazing birthday celebration,” he said, smiling throughout his press conference.
“What I saw today was what I saw in high school,” coach John Calipari said. “I had not seen it before today.”
Calipari hadn’t seen the same player in practice. He got on Maxey, asking where the sniper he recruited was. That, of course, was partly because of who he was practicing against: Ashton Hagans, the SEC co-defensive player of the year last season who Maxey affectionately called “the pitbull.”
“He gets demoralized at times and I keep telling him, ‘there’s no defender like this kid,’ ” Calipari said. “He’s laughing after, he’s saying the game’s a lot easier than our practices.”
Sharing the same court with All-American Cassius Winston, Maxey was the player you couldn’t take your eyes off of, producing by far the best performance in the Champions Classic doubleheader featuring the top-four ranked teams in the country. Maxey’s 11 first-half points pushed Kentucky to a 10-point lead at the break. But he really impressed down the stretch. The five-star recruit and Mr. Basketball in Texas took — and made — the game’s biggest shots.
There was his banker going across his body in the lane that gave Kentucky a five-point lead with 2:22 to go. Then there was a 25-foot 3-pointer that pushed a 3-point lead to six with 59.9 seconds remaining. The shot clock was winding down and Maxey lost the ball for a moment. He calmly retreated, gathered it and drained the jumper that clinched victory.
“Two days prior to this all I talked about was, ‘you be that sniper; play. We need you to get baskets for us,’ ” Calipari said. “I’m happy for him. He is the greatest kid. … Ashton steals the ball from him [in practice] and he smiles.”
There were plenty of reasons to smile on this night.
He ran Kentucky’s offense like a veteran, completely in charge directing traffic, and was an active defender and grabbed five rebounds. One of the big questions for the Wildcats entering the season was who would be the guy when the game was on the line. It wasn’t a question Tuesday night.
“That’s what we’re going to need,” Hagans said of Maxey, “for our team to be at our best.”
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