ATLANTA – For the Kentucky Wildcats, these are the necessary growing pains.
Clearly, they have as much talent as anyone in the country — who couldn't think that after watching Alex Poythress put on a dunk-a-thon against Duke — but they're still learning just what it takes to win at this level.
The Blue Devils provided the schooling Tuesday night.
Senior guard Seth Curry scored 23 points and No. 9 Duke held off a furious comeback by the third-ranked Wildcats, preserving a 75-68 victory at the Georgia Dome.
Both teams hope to return to Atlanta in April, when the Final Four will be held in the same building.
"I wouldn't mind having some of their guys," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "And I'm sure they would like to have some of our guys."
The Blue Devils relied heavily on their experience to hold off coach John Calipari's latest group of stellar freshmen, who nearly came all the way back from a 14-point deficit in the second half.
Even so, Calipari actually sounded happier about the way his kids played in a loss than he did after their season-opening win over Maryland.
"We're getting better," he said. "This team just had some seniors. But we had a chance."
Calipari scanned the scoresheet and was pleased with the way the shots were spread around. Among the starters, everyone had between five and 12 attempts.
"That's pretty good. They're sharing," he said. "What they don't understand is how hard they have to play every possession, how a minute and a half can cost you a game. They don't know it yet. It's never been important to them. Our job is to teach them. We've got to get them in stronger shape mentally and physically."
Duke (2-0) appeared to be in control, even with Mason Plumlee on the bench in foul trouble. The Blue Devils ripped off a 13-3 run, capped by Rasheed Sulaimon's 3-pointer that made it 58-44 with 9½ minutes remaining.
But Kentucky (1-1) wasn't done, rallying like a defending champ even though this is essentially a whole new team in Calipari's one-and-done system. The Wildcats outscored Duke 17-6 over the next six minutes and actually had a chance to tie it.
Julius Mays missed a 3-pointer with the Blue Devils clinging to a 64-61 lead.
Curry made sure youthful Kentucky didn't get any closer. He blew past Archie Goodwin on a drive — using a pump fake to get by the freshman guard — that essentially clinched the win.
This was the first meeting between the storied programs since 2001. In the stands, Christian Laettner cheered on his alma mater, a reminder of perhaps the most famous game in the series — the 1992 NCAA regional final, in which Duke's Grant Hill heaved a long pass to Laettner, who turned and sank a buzzer-beating jumper that sent the Blue Devils on to their second straight national title.
There were no such heroics in this one.
Poythress led Kentucky with 20 points, soaring over the Blue Devils for several dunks, including a thunderous one-handed slam off a missed jumper by Mays. Nerlens Noel and Goodwin added 16 points apiece. All are freshmen, with plenty of room to grow before tournament time.
This was a good starting point, getting a chance to play in a doubleheader featuring four of the nation's best teams. In the opener, No. 21 Michigan State knocked off No. 7 Kansas 67-64.
"I think we learned a lot about ourselves," Noel said. "When you go up against a team like Duke, you've got to bring it every possession. Tonight was a learning process."
Calipari wasn't happy with his team's effort against Maryland — especially on the boards. They were outrebounded 54-38 by the Terrapins, including 28 at the offensive end.
That was simply unacceptable given Kentucky's vaunted frontcourt featuring the 6-foot-10 Noel and 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein.
Rebounding wasn't as much of an issue this time — Duke finished with a 31-30 edge — but the experienced Blue Devils showed a bit more poise down the stretch.
"Nerlens played way more aggressive than he did against Maryland," Calipari said. "When we got it to three I said, 'We're going to win this.' They just made their free throws."
After Duke let Kentucky back in the game by continuing to put up errant jumpers, Curry finally changed things up. He gave a slight fake and took off for the hoop with just over 2 minutes remaining, forcing Goodwin to grab him by the arm. The senior knocked down both ends of the one-and-one, pushing Duke to a 66-61 lead with 2:04 remaining.
Poythress gave the Wildcats a semblance of hope, putting back a missed shot, but Curry blew by Goodwin again for a layin that made it 68-63 with 1:13 left and essentially sealed it. Calipari called a timeout and screamed at Goodwin as the freshman walked toward the bench.
In the final minute, Curry added two more free throws to finish off the Wildcats.
"I had it going," he said, "so they kept coming to me."
Kentucky still must address the same point guard questions it had before the opener. Sophomore transfer Ryan Harrow has been suffering from flu-like symptoms and didn't even make the trip to Atlanta, ruining a chance to impress the home folks. He played his high school ball in suburban Marietta.
Mays, a graduate student, started in place of Harrow but had only seven points and three assists.
Calipari said he shouldn't have played Harrow against Maryland. As it was, the guard was only able to go 10 minutes. Now, while the team awaits the results of blood tests, the coach vowed not to play him again until he's fully recovered.
"He said he could go, but he wasn't ready," Calipari said. "We need to get him healthy."
In the meantime, he hopes the loss will benefit the Wildcats down the road.
"If this is what we look like in December and January, this is not going to be the team everybody thinks," Calipari said. "We have to figure out exactly how we're going to play — then get after it."
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