Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Guard Trio Leads Kentucky Over Duke in Champions Classic
CHICAGO –– Duke and Kentucky seemed destined to meet last April in the NCAA Championship game. But while the Blue Devils went the distance and cut down the nets for the fifth time in school history, Kentucky was taken out by Wisconsin in the national semifinals.
In the first real test of the 2015-16 season, the Wildcats proved to be up to the challenge.
No. 2 Kentucky topped No. 5 Duke 74-63 in the first game of the State Farm Champions Classic Tuesday night at the United Center. Kentucky’s guards were the difference, as Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe combined for 46 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds in front of more than 60 NBA personnel.
“If you have good guards, you have a chance to win, and Kentucky has three point guards,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters.
The 5-9 Ulis, one of the team’s few holdovers from last year, was extremely poised and confident as Kentucky’s main ball-handler and finished with 18 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds.
“God was good to him,” Coach K said. “They didn’t give him height, but they gave him probably a heart that’s five times bigger than most people.”
He added: “I admired his presence throughout the game and his face throughout the game. It was the look of a winner.”
Said Ulis on ESPN: “Being here last year and just having so much experience I just have to come try to lead these guys. Jamal did a great job handling the pressure. I like how Isaac [Humphries] stepped up. Alex [Poythress] played like he did before the injury. I feel like we came together as a team.”
The 6-foot-5 Murray put up 16 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds and Krzyzewksi called him “a man.”
The 6-3 Briscoe chipped in with 12 points, 3 rebounds and 1 assist while battling a leg ailment.
Conversely, Duke’s key contributors were relatively quiet on Tuesday. Brandon Ingram and Grayson Allen struggled for much of the night, scoring only 10 points combined and going 3-for-17 from the floor. Allen, the hero of the NCAA title game, entered averaging 27 points in his first two games.
The Blue Devils also shot poorly from the free throw line, shooting only 61 percent.
The Wildcats led from the latter part of the first half and began to pull away in the final minutes. Marcus Lee had a pair of flashy alley-oop jams in the first half and chipped in 10 points and 10 boards before fouling out in the second half. Skal Labissiere, a 7-foot freshman projected as the No. 1 pick in the Draft, also fouled out, collecting seven points and four rebounds before that.
Beyond just the numbers, Kentucky’s guards seemed to fool Duke’s defense with crisp passes and smooth drives to the rim for most of the night. Murray also provided a highlight-reel assist in the second half, splitting two defenders with a behind-the-back dribble before throwing a pass to Poythress for the slam.
Ulis, Murray and Briscoe scored or assisted on 11 of the Wildcats’ 14 second-half field goals.
Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones led the Blue Devils with 16 points each. Marshall Plumlee had an effective first few minutes, scoring over Labissiere on multiple put-backs early in the first half. He was quiet after that, however, finishing with 12 points and 10 boards.
In the end, it was Kentucky’s speed and athleticism that led them to victory, letting the Wildcats score early and often while keeping Duke’s offense disjointed for much of the game. Kentucky improves to 3-0, while the Blue Devils now fall to 2-1.
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Guard Trio Leads Kentucky Over Duke in Champions ClassicN
Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.