The skinny: No. 3 Kentucky (1-1) lost its first game of the season by a 75-68 final on Tuesday night against No. 9 Duke (2-0) in the Champions Classic in Atlanta, Ga. The defeat was just UK's fourth in its last 53 games. After a nip-and-tuck first half that ended in a 33-31 Duke lead, the veteran Blue Devils built a lead that climbed to 14 points with 9:25 left. With Alex Poythress (20 points), Archie Goodwin (16) and Nerlens Noel (16) leading the way, the young Wildcats made a valiant run, twice cutting the Duke lead to three points with less than four minutes to play. Both times, senior guard Seth Curry had an answer. He scored six of his game-high 23 points to hold off 2012-13 UK's reprisal of the 1997-98 "Comeback Cats."
The difference: Offensive execution. When the Blue Devils needed a basket, they knew who needed to have the ball and how to get it there. That's to be expected with a team starting three seniors. When the Cats needed a basket, they were a little more unsure at times. That's to be expected with a team starting three freshmen.
Player of the game: Curry. Mason Plumlee got off to a hot start, scoring 14 first-half points, but Curry was the finisher. He scored 14 points after halftime, including those aforementioned scores in the clutch. Perhaps most impressively, he did it without even attempting a 3-pointer. In his first season at Duke, 64 of his 101 field goals came from behind the arc. With UK closing hard on his outside shot, Curry made more athletic defenders pay with an arsenal of drives, fakes and floaters. He also hit all six of his free-throw attempts.
Turning point: With their team playing in an event with three of the most high-profile schools in the country, Kentucky fans dominated the stands in the Georgia Dome. They made their presence felt during a 9-0 UK run that cut the Duke lead to 64-61 with 3:29 left. They were ready to explode when a 3-pointer that would have tied the game left the hands of Julius Mays. It was a good look, but the shot missed. It would be the last time UK had the ball facing less than a five-point deficit.
Key stat: Hidden points/possessions. UK outshot Duke 49.0 percent-45.6 percent and the Blue Devils outscored the Cats by just one point at the foul line, 15-14. How then did Kentucky end up losing by seven? Taking a closer look at the box score, it's pretty obvious. First, Duke launched six more shots than UK because the Blue Devils committed five fewer turnovers and grabbed two more offensive rebounds (11 for Duke, nine for UK). Second, Duke's field goals were more valuable. The Blue Devils hit eight 3s in 18 attempts, outscoring the Cats by 12 points from behind the arc even though UK shot a respectable 40 percent.
Unsung hero: Poythress. After a quiet collegiate debut, John Calipari challenged the freshman forward to play like the "beast" Coach Cal had so often called him in the preseason. Poythress answered the bell with a few solid days of practice before carrying the momentum into Tuesday's game. He needed just 12 shots to score his 20 points while throwing down an array of ferocious dunks. Poythress also had five offensive rebounds and scored off each one with a 3-pointer, two dunks, a layup and a short jumper, accounting for all 11 of UK's second-chance points.
What this one means: The Cats fell on the learning side of Coach Cal's "winning or learning" early-season scale. Facing a veteran team likely to stay in the top 10 most of the season, UK never backed down. Things looked grim when the deficit was 14, but the Wildcats once again showed fortitude, rallying late. They fell short, but the play of freshmen Poythress, Noel and Goodwin was encouraging. That doesn't mean there's not plenty to work on. Rebounding was once again suspect, offensive fouls were once again a problem and the point guard position was once again unsettled in Ryan Harrow's absence. With Harrow undergoing tests to determine the nature of his illness back in Lexington, Jarrod Polson couldn't recapture his Maryland magic, while Goodwin showed he is still a work in progress at the lead guard position, committing four turnovers. Even with all that in mind, there was nothing on Tuesday night to suggest the Cats can't live up to lofty preseason expectations as the season goes on. In short, we won't know quite what this one means until we find out what they learned from it and how they respond.
He said what? "We had our chances. What happens when you're a freshman team, and I told the guys after, we had about three spells of a minute and a half that we do something dumb on our end and they come down and what a good team's going to do is they capitalize." - Calipari
"Going up against a team like Duke, you got to bring it every possession. Tonight was a learning process. I think we're just going to get back to work and really figure it out." - Noel
"It's a good game. I can't stand losing, but it was a great game. Our fans - I want to thank our fans for making the trek down here. It was amazing. You walk down here and it looked like we were at home." - Calipari
"He's a beast. That's what he needed to look like. That's who he is. He's not a 2-guard. He is a beast. So be a beast. I don't want to see any of the cute stuff. Get the ball by the guy and dunk on somebody. And he did it." - Calipari on Poythress
"He tried to work out today back home. We got him with our weight, strength and conditioning just to see if they could get something going. We just don't know. I feel for the kid because he really wants to play." - Calipari on Harrow's health
"We've got find one more guy 'til Ryan gets back and probably it's Jon Hood. But this was a hard game. It wouldn't have been fair of me to stick Jon Hood in a game like this." - Calipari
"I think it helped our team. This is all new to this team. We're trying to figure out how we're playing. We don't play hard enough yet. We don't compete on every possession yet. We don't go hard after every rebound yet. We don't know how to finish games yet."