The earliest meeting between a No. 1 and No. 2 team lived up to all the hype lofty rankings could bring Tuesday.
"Our program needed a program win and that was one," MSU coach Tom Izzo said.
The Spartans had to fight off a late rally from the Wildcats, but put the game away when junior Branden Dawson tipped in a missed layup from sophomore Denzel Valentine for a 78-74 lead with less than five seconds to go.
Senior guard Keith Appling led the Spartans with 22 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. None was bigger than a 3-pointer to break a tie game – followed by a Gary Harris steal and lay up – with less than five minutes to go.
"They went on their run, so we knew we kind of had to do something to weather the storm a little bit and we both stepped up to try to make something happen and get things going back our way," Appling said.
The Spartans came out of the gate hot and forced four turnovers quickly to race out to a 10-0 lead.
"We just wanted to keep our foot on their throat," sophomore Gary Harris said. "We wanted to punch them in the mouth instead of getting hit first."
Fueled by the quick start, MSU shot 60 percent in the first half and led 44-32 behind Harris' 15 points.
The Wildcats came out in the second half strong and pulled with six before the Spartans extended the lead back to double digits.
Kentucky kept fighting and took advantage of MSU foul trouble to tie the game 66-66 with less than five minutes to go behind strong play from freshman sensation Julius Randle, who had 23 points in the second half..
"John (Calipari) made some nice adjustments at the end of half and start of the second," Izzo said. "He started opening up a little bit more and then they started going into him."
Randle keyed a Kentucky effort on the glass that out rebounded MSU 44 to 32 -- including 18 offensive boards for the Wildcats.
"We are going to get better," Izzo said. "This is perfect. I don't ever like getting outrebounded. Good time to bring the pads back out."
Randle finished with a game-high 27 points and 13 rebounds – but also nine turnovers, many forced by Dawson.
"I think Branden was the unsung hero," Izzo said. "The rebounds, the steals he got, Branden Dawson is starting to play more like the guy I recruited. I think he made some big-time plays."
Now likely to be the top-ranked team in the nation in the next poll, Izzo is bracing the for the expectations.
"If we have that, I think it's great for us," he said. "We have to learn how to handle that kind of thing. We will see now when we get back to campus. It's going to be a little added pressure on, but that's the fun. …
"We'll see what we can do with the bulls eye on our back."