(Photo courtesy UK Athletics)

In the end there was too much Duke and not enough Oscar.  

Kentucky fans, along with John Calipari, got a good look at how the rest of the season might unfold, rolled into 40 rollicking minutes in Madison Square Garden. 

While the rest of the Wildcats searched for their stroke, Tshiebwe cleaned the glass and tried to hold down the middle but nobody had an answer for Paolo Banchero.  It’s hard to imagine anyone else in college basketball who might.

That’s why Duke was able to hold off Kentucky, 79-71 in the Champions Classic, which might have been appropriately named on this night. As Kansas dispatched Michigan State the Jayhawks had the look of a team that could go a long way – maybe the entire way this college basketball season.

Duke certainly did, thanks to Bancher’s 22 points and seven boards, along with fellow freshman Trevor Keels’ 25. Kentucky showed itself as a team with a lot of weapons but too many times they misfired, the Wildcats shooting just 37.7 percent. 

Minus Tshiebwe’s 8-of-14, the Cats were 21-for-63.  Tshiebwe finished with 17 points and an incredible 19 rebounds, which is why Kentucky refused to let the Devils get away until the closing seconds. 

“They’re tough and we’re tough. That was a big-time game,” said Duke coach Mike Kzyzewski. 

John Calipari after the game listed the Blue Devil players he recruited but admitted of them all, it was Banchero he wanted the most. “His dad is Italian and so am I,” Calipari said.  “I have an Italian passport. And i still didn’t get him.”

He knew Banchero was capable of doing exactly what he did in the Garden. “We had too much respect for him and we backed away and now he shoots,” Calipari said. “No, make him make basketball plays.”

The UK coach repeated his hope that he gets to coach against Krzyzewski one more time, which would be in the NCAA tournament. Of course, that means his team would face Banchero one more time.  “i hope we play him again,” Calipari said of the precocious freshman, “and i hope he doesn’t play so well.”

“I think the big thing with Paolo is how he’s strong and comfortable with the ball,” Kzysewski said, which fairly described the Duke offense. The Blue Devils seemed to have more flow to their offense, which led to shots in rhythm, which found the basket 50 percent of the time. 

Kentucky had to work harder against the Duke D, only a few times seeming to make things look simple as Sahvir Wheeler several times successfully penetrated and dished for one of his 10 assists. At times he tried to do too much, punctuated by his seven turnovers and 6-of-15 shooting.

And yet, Duke had to dig deep.

“Seeing the clock hit zero was a relief,” said Banchero, one of four Blue Devils who suffered cramps, two of them required IV fluids during the game. Banchero banged with Tshiebwe, who more often than not beat everybody on the glass.

“We knew he was going to be on the boards heavy coming in,” Banchero said. “We did what we could but that’s what he does. He was challenging the bigs and made it hard for us.”

The fight he and his teammates showed was a source of pride for Kentucky’s Jacob Toppin. “We’re never going to back down from a fight,” he said. “We’re going to play until the end. When it says zero-zero on the clock, that’s when we’ll stop fighting. That’s who we are.

“If you’re not going to fight, you can’t play this game.”

It was that fight that kept the Wildcats close while shot after shot found nothing but iron, including a 3-of-14 effort from TyTy Washington, who coming in was the leading candidate among UK players to have the “big splash” game.  Didn’t happen.

“i just said kid, you don’t have to make every shot but you can’t miss em all,” Calipari said.

Wheeler didn’t miss them all, but he missed a bunch and yet, his playmaking and frenetic energy helped his teammates keep pace. 

“Wheeler had control of the team,” Banchero said. ‘You could see it.  He was hooping. He was a floor general.”

A floor general who played 38 minutes – far too many, according to his coach, which contributed to his seven errors. 

“Part of this is me playing Sahvir too many minutes,” Calipari said. “TyTy wasn’t playing well. I stuck with who was playing well.”  

Tshiebwe was one of them, despite early foul trouble. His double-double made him the first UK player with at least 17 points and 19 boards in a season opener since Dan Issel did it against Xavier in 1968 (29 points, 24 rebounds).

“For us to be in that game when our better plays didn’t play well,” Calipari said, “and their two really good players really played well, for us to have a chance to win, that’s crazy.”

What kept them in it, he said, was effort.  “I loved our fight,” he said. “I loved our spirit. That’s what our program has always been about.”

Speaking of spirit, the subject of spirits came up before he ended his post-game press conference.  Calipari said Kansas coach Bill Self suggested he, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Calipari chip in and present Coach K with a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle to honor his final season.

Calipari made sure to point out that it was he who paid for the bourbon, after explaining what it was to the non-Kentucky media, and admitted he himself wouldn’t have known until he moved to Lexington. 

And as he headed home, the UK coach said, “I need some bourbon right now…”

If the rest of his season is as smooth as Pappy Van Winkle, Calipari is in for a great run.

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